Saturday, January 30, 2010

Bangkok was...

There is over a foot of snow on the ground outside, and the temperature is in the low teens. Today was a day of gloves and scarves and ice forming on eyelashes. It was a day to curl up with my favorite pashmina wrap from India around my shoulders, drink hot cocoa, and read from cover to cover Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking (a slender, devastating miracle of a book, but more on that later). So why on such a straight off the Swiss Miss box winter day does my mind wander to nights of heat and sweat and smog in a far away Asian city?

The small town where I taught primary school was a few minute away from the Bangkok city limits. I spent nearly a dozen of my weekends in Bangkok. If I didn't stay there for a full weekend and wasn't sick or somewhere else, I at least went in for an afternoon, to watch an American movie and buy some cheese and Goldfish (may not sound all that thrilling, but trust me, if you are living in Thailand there is nothing more thrilling than cheese and Goldfish). I have written about so many of the parts of my experience, but I recently realized that I have not at any length written about Bangkok. And that's just so utterly wrong, because Bangkok was my second home during my time in Thailand. Bangkok kept me sane. It was where I met up with other teachers and recuperated and blew off steam. Bangkok is single handedly responsible for the fact that I never came to blows with any of my students. I miss Bangkok. I think about it often, even now, on a snowy Richmond night in January, when I am literally and figuratively as far away from that big, crazy city as I could be.

But how do I write about Bangkok and my times there? My memories of it are collage like. They are harder to fit into a linear narrative than my other stories are. Because Bangkok wasn't about clear waters or mountains or lush rain forests. Bangkok was a big, not particularly attractive city. It's not Paris. It's not a place you fall in love with on a visual level. Bangkok was crowded and loud, sometimes overwhelming. It was flawed and polluted and the traffic was unlike anything I had ever experienced (and I've driven 95 near DC at rush hour). It was all of these things, and I loved it. It was not some idealized paradise. People have asked me a lot what my favorite part of my six month experience was. And I always hesitate. I think about saying Bali, because Bali was the epitome of an idealized paradise except that it was impossibly real. I think about Ko Phi Phi or Railay, with their white sands and emerald waters. But if I was really honest with myself, my favorite part about my experience was Bangkok, smelly, loud, crowded, hectic, Bangkok. Bangkok wasn't perfect, but it was where I lived a life, not a vacation, but a life. It was where I formed friendships and bought school supplies and packed into taxis with about seven people too many. It was the first place I saw when my plane landed in May and the last place I saw when my plane left in November.

But even with that said it's still hard to define what Bangkok was, what it was to me. But as a writer of course I have to try.



Bangkok was Cheap Charlie's, a famous (or infamous depending on your worldview) expat bar off the Nana skytrain stop. Cheap Charlie's is completely outdoors, tucked into a cramped little alley. It's made up of a carved and twisted wooden bar, bedecked in all manner of weird odds and ends and a bunch of stools, a few small tables. I do not know why we ended up going to this place so many times, when there are all manner of fancy (and indoor) bars in Bangkok. But clearly there is some kind of allure, because it is a necessary, almost sacred stop on the Thailand expat nightlife route. Get there past 11pm and the place is absolutely packed. There is a rope to cordon off the bar from the rest of the alley, and within this rope are representatives of absolutely every type of expat species in Thailand. One night there was a bachelor party of about a dozen British men dressed only in teeny tiny underwear, wads of cash sticking out of their waistbands. If it tells you anything about this bar, no one really thought much of it. At Cheap Charlie's I would meet other ESL teachers sitting next to children of diplomats. Two men from Iraq would sit drinking beer beside a group of drunken Australians (there really aren't any other kind). Veteran expats who have lived in Thailand for decades mingled with backpackers fresh off the plane. I often found myself unable to concentrate on conversation with my friends, because my eyes would wander over the hodge-podge of expats around me, the sun-burnt Swedes at the tail end of their island hopping route or the 50 year old European men with their 20 year old Thai girlfriends. I spent countless hours at this place, 90 degree nights with slippery bottles of Beer Lao.

Bangkok was taxi rides. Bangkok was the time at 3 or 4 am when we absolutely HAD to have McDonalds, an urgent matter of life or death we tried to impress upon our very nice and very non-English speaking taxi driver. We drove around in a big circle for about 20 minutes, somehow unable to find the 24 hour McDonalds we knew was nearby, until in a stroke of fate or luck or maybe just destiny we drove past a lit up Burger King. And we suddenly knew that the only thing better than late night McDonalds was late night Burger King. Or the time we crammed 7 people into a cab and "I Don't Want to Miss a Thing" by Aerosmith came on the radio. It took only seconds for every person in that cab (excluding the driver) to burst into a spontaneous and passionate rendition of the song we had all known by heart since middle school, so loud I fear we may have permanently damaged our cabbie's hearing. Bangkok was cab drivers saying "yes, yes" they know where such and such location is, get in, get in, only to find out five minutes into the drive that the taxi driver has no idea where the place is but will nevertheless drive us around for fruitless hours unless we ask him to stop. Bangkok was tuk tuk drives, whipping through the city at a breakneck speed, weaving in between bigger cars, each turn defying death.

Bangkok was sweaty bars filled with sweatier people, loud Western music pumping over the speakers. And in these bars you can almost forget you're in Thailand, so close are they to bars at home. That is until you filter out into the street and a baby elephant is standing there. Bangkok was street food, so satisfying at any hour but especially late at night, walking and eating fried rice or pad thai. Or vendors selling icy fresh chunks of watermelon or mango, selling fresh squeezed bottles of orange juice or coffee with condensed milk. It was a world of food on every block, as intrinsic to the city as its buildings, the salty, smoky smells filling the streets.



Bangkok was the JJ weekend market, a labyrinth of stalls selling everything under the sun,  knock off Prada, purebred puppies, antique maps, china plates, colorful gems, flip flops, bathing suits, bunny rabbits, fresh flowers, blue jeans, colorful silk scarves, ice cream served on hot dog buns (I kid you not). We always meant to go to the market early in the day, before the heat and the crowds, but well you know what they say about best laid plans. Inevitably we would wind up there in the peak of the day's heat, the sun beating mercilessly down, throngs of tourists and locals searching for various treasures. We would last about an hour until we completely wilted, but an hour as usually enough to spend a good chunk of our paycheck. Or the Suan Lum night bazaar, almost across the street from where our orientation hotel was. This was where I first ventured out into Bangkok, beyond the hotel. This was where I returned several more times, for cold drinks at outdoor tables, for rows and rows of vendors, every few feet a different color or texture, a vibrant, throbbing pulse beating at the center of it all.

Bangkok was live music at a rooftop bar on Khao San road, heavily accented takes on Western songs, a dance floor mixed with foreigners and Thai people, clutching beers while jumping in the air. Every time I danced in Thailand (and I know this is going to sound like I was on acid or shrooms while I was there, but I assure you this was not the case) I felt so connected to it all. And okay, roll your eyes, but I don't know how else to explain the feeling, of being in a place like Thailand with people you've only recently met but feel so tied to because of the experience, of being out at night and hearing a Pearl Jam or ACDC or Beach Boys song sung by a Thai singer, and dancing like crazy and belting the words out because hearing that song in that place somehow makes you feel like your normal world and life and home are fused with the completely non-normal present. And you're a part of it all. You're alive and there and dancing on rooftop in Thailand to a song that reminds you in so many ways of home. I remember at this particular bar, I took a break in dancing to go talk with some friends at a table and like it so often does in Thailand, the sky opened up and let loose an absolute deluge. Rain thundered to the ground and the mist from it sprayed my face. I remember looking around at me, at the laughing and talking and mostly drunken strangers, at my friends, at this silly little expat bar, and feeling so at ease, so sure of myself in that moment, of the rightness of it all.

I remember so many nights like that, sitting at so many tables in expat bars or Irish pubs, talking about inconsequential things, fanning ourselves from the heat, wearing sundresses in late October. The weather in Thailand is a perpetual summer, but on a non-weather level it feels like that too. There was something energized and hopeful about every moment there, an unhurried, easy happiness, because there would be more nights like that, more nights sitting at little alcohol stands (yes they have those in Thailand and they are awesome). We would find one of these stands when a bar closed and sit until almost dawn. No one wanted to go to bed. There was always another story to tell, another drink to get. I remember this from Paris, the way a night out or a drink just feel different when you're living abroad. There's something visceral and immediate about it. You're not just going through the motions. You're acutely aware of the sensation of living, which sounds like a strange thing, because aren't we always aware of living? But the truth is we're not. We forget about it, because we do the same things so often they become routine. But in Thailand, on those nights, life was novel, it couldn't be forgotten or overlooked. We were there. We were living those moments. And maybe it's because I just read her book, but I'm reminded of a favorite Joan Didion quote:

"One of the mixed blessings of being twenty and twenty-one and even twenty-three is the conviction that nothing like this, all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding, has ever happened to anyone before."

That's exactly how those weekends felt, how new and strange they were, how new and strange they had to be. I wish I could convey that newness, how something so mundane as sitting on a stool drinking beer took on another level of meaning, became more than the sum of its parts. I want to show you Bangkok. I want to remind myself of it, because every day is another day further away from it. I want it to be more than written memories. I want to see it again.

I want to see Soi Kasem San 1, the tiny little street that housed my beloved Wendy House.


I want to see the stray dog we dubbed Max who always hung out on this street. Every single time I stayed here (which was a lot of times) and walked down the street with my backpack on he would come trotting up beside me. To wrap up our nights we would sometimes sit outside Wendy House, buy a beer from the front desk. There was never a cool part of the night in Bangkok. It would be 3am and the beers would still drip with condensation after only seconds of reaching the outdoors. We would sit and talk while Max sat dutifully beside us.

I want to see the SkyTrain, Bangkok's shiny and new above ground metro system. I want to sit on one of those orange plastic seats and hear the calm, cool collected voice announce "sattanitop" (what I picked up means roughly next station in English). I want to walk from the MBK stop to Siam Paragon mall on one of the above ground pathways, traffic lined below me. I want to go to that awesome Indian place near Cheap Charlie's and order garlic naan and butter chicken, again, more mundane actions, made special and unique and wonderful because in Thailand nothing was mundane. Nothing in life should ever be mundane, but we let it become that way because we develop immunities to the tiny miracle that is good garlic naan. We convince ourselves that because we do these things often they are somehow less important. But they're not. I don't know why it's so easy to appreciate life when you're abroad, but it is. Take for example Mexican food. Now I love Mexican food at all times and in all places. But in Thailand eating Mexican was a religious experience. And it wasn't because the food was fabulous. Shockingly the Mexican food in Thailand, a country with a Mexican population that can probably be counted on one hand, was not all that stellar. But it didn't matter. It didn't matter if the salsa was bland or the enchiladas soggy. We were delirious and giddy over the beauty of those soggy enchiladas.

Like I said Bangkok wasn't perfect, but it didn't have to be. Every part of that city and my time there was profoundly, deeply vital. And yet still I feel I haven't done it justice. What have I missed?

The amulet market, small and dimly lit, table after table heaped high with small pendants portraying Buddha or the King or other important figures, the Thai men with magnifying glasses who would stand for hours inspecting amulet after amulet, looking for the right fit. Or the spirit houses. There are spirit houses everywhere in Thailand, but there is something wonderfully bizarre and awesome about a spirit house for a giant, fancy, modern shopping mall. There's the Gourmet Market at Siam Paragon, where I would wander with a blissful smile on my face amidst rows of Pepperidge Farm and Jiff and CHEESE, did I mention the cheese!?

There was the time where we stopped for a drink in an upscale, outdoor bar where we were serenaded by the Thai version of Michael Bolton, only without the ability to sing in key. There was the quasi country western bar we stumbled upon with a live band, where there were about 5 other people in the bar and we were the only people dancing (they played "Sweet Child O' Mine", how could we not dance?) There were the hookah bars where the air was filled with sweet, strawberry flavored smoke. There were shots taken on the way from one bar to the other, in the middle of a crowded sidewalk (did I mention that there are stands in Thailand that sell booze?) There were games of pool in smoky pubs full of old British or Irish men watching soccer. There was Chinatown with its restaurants selling shark fin soup and stands selling roasted chestnuts. There was the dip in the rooftop pool of a new friend (I really like friends with pools), the Bangkok skyline spreading out in the dark beneath us. There were the hungover mornings eating chicken and rice, or more often, Au Bon Pain sandwiches.

Bangkok for me was about Friday afternoon, a bag packed and with me at school, almost sprinting away after my last class, not even bothering to change. I would hail the first taxi I saw, and let out a long slow exhale. The work week was done. Within minutes we would pass out of my town, up and onto one of the big suspension bridges. And there it would be, Bangkok, or at least a small part of it, waiting for me.

Bangkok was my sanity, my break, my stress reliever. I had no other English speakers with me in my town and sometimes when I met up with my friends I felt like I was literally brimming over with pent up words, all of the things I couldn't tell anyone for the last five days. We usually grabbed a beer and drank it while we got ready. I would sometimes be so deliriously happy I couldn't stop smiling. The weekend was this beautiful thing just lying in front of me.

There would be hot nights and even hotter days, trips to markets, trips to MBK to buy slightly non-legit DVDS. There would be drinks with friends, war stories exchanged about our experiences teaching. There would be dancing. I can't say enough about the dancing. I'm a spaz who does not normally relish all things dancing. But in Thailand I couldnt wait to be on the dance floor. I couldn't wait for anything, for everything.

I've heard people say that traveling changes you, but I wouldn't necessarily agree with that. I think traveling makes you a better version of yourself. It gets you back to the person you would be without all of life's obstructions and hindrances. Everything falls away and you're you and life is life and there's nothing complicated about it. We make life complicated. Horrible things happen we can't control, but more often we're the ones making life hard. I don't know why we do it. I only know that whenever I've lived abroad I stop. I don't make life hard for myself. I don't make it complicated.

I'm me. Life is life.

Bangkok was Bangkok, wonderfully crazy, flawed, irrepresible Bangkok. Tonight, these million miles away, with snow on the ground, I can't help but think of it. I can't help but drift back there, because maybe then it's not so far away. Maybe if I go back there in my mind I can shrink those million miles, bring that city, and the person I was in that city, back across oceans and continents, all the way home.

1 comment:

meyerprints said...

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