Bangkok has between eight and nine million people—about the same as New York City, where I lived when I was very young. I sort of expected it to be an Asian version of New York, but instead it feels even bigger, noisier, dirtier, and more chaotic. This is really surprising to me, because New York is actually much bigger—by some counts, the greater metropolitan area contains 19 million people, compared to 13 or 14 million for greater Bangkok. Also, New York, starting from isolated wilderness, reached its monstrous proportions in less than 300 years, while Bangkok, and the surrounding towns that it absorbed, has had over a thousand years to sort itself out (although most of the explosive growth has been since the late 19th century, similar to New York). Until recently, New York was the starting point for the most diverse inflow of immigrants ever seen, and a nexus of individualism. By contrast, Bangkok’s populations has been derived mainly from neighboring Asian lands—yes, they are diverse, but not to the degree that the denizens of The Big Apple are. Most of the Asian cultures place a much higher value on conforming and cooperation, and the economies and lifestyles are more communal. New York, the cultural capital of me, myself, and get outta my way, has elected officials presiding over scores of autonomous municipalities, precincts, and boroughs, who serve relatively short terms, while Bangkok has been ruled by kings and lifelong bureaucrats. The religions of New York are predominantly Christian, followed by about eight percent Jewish. Face it, whatever their ideals may be, these groups are not noted for their ability to coexist peacefully with everyone else. Bangkok is occupied by Buddhists, who are famously, profoundly pacifist and tolerant.
How do these elements produce comparative order in New York, and comparative chaos in Bangkok?
For whatever reasons, Bangkok has insufficient infrastructure (roads, public transport, sanitation, etc.). There are traffic laws, and there are probably building codes and zoning regulations, but these are not enforced (possibly because of corruption and insufficient resources).
New York can be gaudy, loud, crowded, dirty, and dangerous. Just amplify that ten times, and that’s Bangkok. We were very grateful to have our friend Jaa with us, showing us the good food, shopping, and historic sites, and helping us navigate this challenging city.
We didn’t find walking sticks on our shopping excursion, but we did find a movie theater that was playing the latest movie by a well-known Thai director. By Thai standards, it was scandalously steamy. Jaa was eager to see it, and we were eager to escape the sticky heat and uproar of the city. The movie turned out to be an elaborate soap opera set in the 1930s, with a few sex scenes thrown in. The plot and dialogue were so full of clichés, Karel and I were laughing through the whole thing, but I enjoyed seeing this depiction of Thailand in the age of glamor. I had hoped to see this version of Thailand in person, but my illusions of an ancient culture moving gracefully into the modern age were quickly disappearing in the smog.
This time we went to our first chain restaurant for dinner, where we tried hot pot (sort of like fondue). Very tasty, once again. It seems you can’t go wrong when it comes to food in this town, as long as you can handle the hot spices. A little more shopping, and we went home with plenty of comfy t-shirts to see us through Indochina.
We decided to take it easy for our last day at Jaa’s house. We felt fine, physically, but the sheer intensity of Bangkok can be mentally exhausting. Karel and I carefully repacked, sorting out the items that we wouldn’t need for the next 30 days of dry season in the tropics. We could leave the warm clothes, hiking shoes, and raincoats at Jaa’s house.
I took the opportunity to resolve some of the remaining mysteries of the Asian bathroom. Jaa confirmed my guess; remain seated.
She took us to lunch one more time, to another neighborhood favorite. By this time, I was having no trouble keeping up with her and Karel in the spiciness department. For anyone who’s despaired of ever enjoying authentic Thai cuisine, you just have to start slowly and build up your tolerance over the course of a few days or weeks.
We transferred to a hotel near the city center and met our tour group later that evening. There would be 12 of us, plus tour director. Karel and I were surprised to discover that we weren’t the eldest, and I was the only American of the bunch. The others were mostly from Canada, the UK, and the Philippines (but living in Canada). The tour director is Irish, living in Thailand. And of course, we’re traveling among Asians. For the first time in my life, I’m a minority. It feels strange.This entry was posted in Honeymoon 2013