Bangkok and Traveling without Touring
22 November – 2 December
Leaving Japan marked a big transition. Many of our friends seem to travel to southeast Asia with the greatest of ease (including Jacob on his trip nearly 10 years ago), but for me the hazards of everyday life feel like a pretty big deal. I was nervous about getting sick, either from the water/ice or from mosquitoes. Malaria and dengue seemed like no small thing. Avoiding washed fresh greens and certain fruits and using plastic water bottles were merely annoyances that took some adjustment (and Jacob brought his sterilizing pen, a major help), but as for mosquitoes, there’s no way to avoid bites entirely.
However, although my thoughts on food, water, and health took up plenty of mental space, they were secondary to the overall change in focus of our travels. In Japan, we had let ourselves go along for the ride as tourists. Buoyed by the absurdity of it all, I had let myself be entertained, swept along. I went around and saw the sights like a regular traveler.
In southeast Asia, we were’t really there anymore to sight-see. I wanted to find a way to feel I was living in some meaningful way, not just passing through or rushing around seeing sights. My state of bemusement was unsustainable, anyway. Although Bangkok is plenty absurd, my receptors for that were totally down-regulated. I couldn’t feel the thrill anymore. I was faced with a hot, chaotic new country, an unfamiliar culture and language, and a question: what in the world was I doing there if I wasn’t there to sight-see?
I was acutely aware that this sort of voyage has been done before by so many, including many of you reading this. There was nothing new to see, nothing new to write about. There was an “impossibility of new factual discoveries…Anything I learned would have to be justified by private benefit rather than by the interest of others. My discoveries would have to enliven me; they would have in some way to prove ‘life-enhancing’.” (The Art of Travel)
This trip wasn’t about things to see, it was about having time to simply be and also about stepping out of my habits and shaking things up. So now was the time to dive in, but how to do that when everything seems oriented toward getting out and seeing the sights?
Arriving in Bangkok, we only had 8 days until our next longer-term experience and 3 cities to move through in that time, so it didn’t make sense to try to feel settled in each location. The perfect thing to do with this kind of setup, actually, is to sight-see, and trying to live a slower paced existence in a hotel while surrounded by other tourists turned out to be challenging. We had booked a beautiful guesthouse on the river with two stylish common rooms and plenty of pillows for lounging about. We wanted a place where it might be pleasant to linger for an entire day without going out into the wild city. Our choice definitely delivered; we could lounge about in the shade next to a fan, ordering fruit smoothies and watching the boats go by. Strangely, though, I felt a little uncomfortable doing this. It was as if the staff expected us to leave during the day. Maybe they were a little too attentive (it was a small place with only 6 rooms), leading me to feel bad about keeping them on their toes during hours when normally they get the place to themselves. Maybe it was fine, and I was simply being oversensitive. Either way, in the end we went out.
It is essential to take public transit in Bangkok. The tuk-tuks are open to the pollution and heat, invariably overcharge, and bombarded us with ‘special offers’ (deviations to shops or unrequested sites). The taxis, while air conditioned, often refused to use the meter or refused to drive anywhere at all, claiming horrendous traffic jams. If you were far from home, you might be stuck walking hours through the heat on foot unless you could take a river taxi or a BTS or MRT station was handy.
Probably I should mention that we wandered without a guidebook. We did have a lo-res map made for expats with some restaurants on it. Beyond that, we knew very little about the city and hadn’t looked much up beyond where to stay (this is so unlike me; a new way of approaching a city). It certainly made some things much harder, like finding vegetarian food (although we had a couple ideas, thanks to our awesome and well-traveled vegetarian hosts in Kyoto). However, I loved being in a place without feeling the pull of *needing* to see something, to check sights off a list. When we would unexpectedly come upon a palace or a temple, in ornate golden sparkling splendor, with shapes so otherwordly to my eyes, I would gasp in delight, and enjoy in total innocence. Also, without a list of prime targets, I could let myself determine in my own subjective way what interested me.
What interested me, I soon discovered, was the people. I loved wandering the little streets of Chinatown around our guesthouse with their machine shops filled floor-to-ceiling, bursting with mysterious metal pieces. There were usually 2-3 men working in each; sometimes sitting on a stool outside, sometimes lying on the sidewalk, resting, sometimes in a group eating or talking together. They invariably stopped and watched us as we walked by; I felt their gazes, full of interest and a little bit charged, different from the empty gazes of the Japanese. I always smiled and waved, sometimes saying “sawadee ka” (my approximation of “hello” in Thai). I loved all the smiles I got in return. I never felt harassed or in danger, but it was clear the interest, like the physical city itself, was far from sterile.
We got at least one massage every day (ok, so that is a good reason to leave the guesthouse!), often at the same place: a modern spot with high ceilings and big canvases of Thai art, open until midnight. About 15 beautiful wooden lounge chairs with orange cushions lined the bottom floor. It seemed like 20 people worked there, although the place was not big. There were rarely more than 4 clients that I could see. I often found the staff sitting on the floor watching movies on their phones, lying down taking naps, or all eating together for extended periods of time. This behavior seemed to be common everywhere we went in Bangkok: people taking naps in the darndest places (in dirty corners off crowded sidewalks), people lounging around. I was really happy to see this and enjoyed the contrast of the chaotic, dirty city with a languid way of moving and being. I felt sad, though, when I thought about the incessant march toward modernization and the inevitable death of nap-time that comes with 10 hours in an air-conditioned office. It wasn’t a fate I wished on the residents of Bangkok. In fact, I (probably like a lot of other visitors) rather wished I could resolve to implement napping in my own work schedule whenever I returned to the States.
I was also sad to see for myself another Western influence I had only read about before: images of Thai people in advertisements (billboards, tv) were whitewashed. As much as possible, Thai people were made to look Western. This had been the case in Japan, too. I felt really sad about what I perceived was a desire to be like America, when I was hoping to reclaim many of the things our culture had lost, like whole foods and naps.
Even though everyone had warned me about Bangkok, I had been determined to like it. I generally love cities and urban culture. However, after four days of endless searches for vegetarian food (I survived on pomegranate juice and mango sticky rice some days), and unrelenting heat, traffic, pollution, and humidity, we were ready to leave. I was melting while locals walked in the sun in jeans and long sleeves and, sometimes, coats. I felt totally claustrophobic, and I needed to GET OUT. We had only really come to Bangkok to get our visas for Myanmar, and we got those a day earlier than expected. So we left, having succeeded in mostly not seeing anything.
One thing we did see, however, were the protests. An entire part of the city seemed to be consumed by marchers, but Bangkok is so huge that in other parts life continued as usual, and we would have never known the extent of things unless a taxi hadn’t inadvertently driven us by, and we saw the marchers and many blocked off streets. We had asked and read about the situation with the amnesty bill and tried to catch up on the history. Otherwise we kept our distance and hoped for a peaceful resolution.