After three days lying in my hotel room sleeping, I realize Bangkok has beaten me. On my first day I woke early and excited, ready to get out and walk the town, to get the feel of the place and find interesting photos. Walking a city for hours is one of my favorite things, a ritual, my way of orienting myself and getting the feel of a place. But it wasn’t working this time.
It’s just a couple blocks from my hotel up to the main street, Sukhumvit Road. My first morning was sunny, hot, and humid. But after a few steps in the wet heat and constant roar of cramped shuffling traffic I was already wondering why I went outside, why I decided to return to Thailand, and where the nearest shade was. I followed a narrow sidewalk, not much more than a tenuous line of curb, constantly looking back, worried that I’d crossed some hidden boundary that would turn me from a pedestrian in to legitimate target. I passed a massage parlor, two hours of oil massage for 400 baht (about $15), I had to be careful, if I stopped then I’d have spent my whole vacation there.
By the time I arrived at Sukhumvit Road I was dizzy and exhausted. I trudged a little further, suddenly blocked by six lanes of barely moving, bumper to bumper traffic moving organically to some Thai logic I couldn’t comprehend well enough to safely navigate. Instead I sought out the nearest skytrain station, took the stairs up and over the street and ducked in to the Siam Paragon, a giant modern mall. Thank god for air conditioning and muzak! I sat watching the crowds for a few minutes, let the sweat evaporate, and slowly came back to life. Taking a break from the heat, I roamed the multiple floors of shops staffed with bored girls sitting behind registers looking at their phones. I’ve never seen so many empty shops, a place where everyone was selling and no one buying. On an upper floor I’m surprised to pass a McLaren automobile behind velvet ropes, along with floors of every high end phone and TV.
After a while of wandering the maze of shops and searching for an exit I escaped and stepped back out in to the heat and traffic noise, and stubbornly attempted to keep walking, to build my mental map and enjoy things the way I knew I enjoy them. Immediately I was sweating again and questing for the next island of air conditioning. I gave up, headed back to the room and slept, frustrated with trying to understand how to adapt to the heat, noise, and chaos.
After a couple days in bed sulking it occurred to me that I had seen hardly anyone else walking, and if I had they were usually tourists like me. Suddenly I understood the constant traffic jams. Taxis! Everything is point A to point B, no walking in between, no heat, just air conditioned convenience. What joy. I’m excited about this revelation, this new way to access the town and set out at once.
There weren’t many tourist attractions near my hotel so I picked another mall to see and grabbed a taxi. He immediately headed the wrong direction and got on the freeway to go two city blocks from where we started. This pattern repeated with every ride. Maybe I’m naive, well I know I am, but I don’t think this was simply a way to rip off tourists. Maybe it’s a necessity to avoid the terrible traffic on Sukhumvit Road or a way to get a little extra money since Thai taxis charge by distance and not time. I guess it was a little of both, a sort of mutual agreement between passenger and driver to get the price of the ride from 50 baht to 75 baht (or $1.30 to $2). Thai taxis are very inexpensive. As this new revelation sunk in I became more aware of other ways people were getting around: subway, motorcycle taxis (hop on the back, zip through traffic, no helmet required), and of course the famous Thai Tuk Tuk.
As I rode around town it seemed like every block and neighborhood had the same personality. As if last week someone took every building in the city, shook them up and dumped them out, averaged out across dozens of square miles. It’s never more than a block to a Starbucks, an oddly shaped sky scraper, an Indian restaurant, a small family shack with tropical garden, a massage parlor, or a five story mall. The more unusual stores ended up wherever they fell in the city, a bead shop here, doll house miniatures there, a shop selling ‘Life Assurance’. With such randomness I’m not sure how anyone finds anything.
But this taxi oriented, disjointed, point-at-a-time life left me with no sense of the whole. The heart of the place was still impossible for me to understand. I was left with disconnected pieces that didn’t come together in my mind. Maybe that’s what Bangkok is, people making the best of where they are and what ever random thing they come across. No bigger picture, no grand whole, just the moment. I headed back to the comfort of bed.
On the fourth day, simply as a matter of will I got out of the room. It was an overcast evening, almost comfortable out. I grabbed a taxi then took the skytrain a few stops down to Ekami and then I was walking again. But this time I wasn’t trying to figure things out. I was just going to be going. A woman with long legs and a tight red dress waved and gave me a welcoming smile. Or maybe it was a lady boy, I’m not sure. After a while, out of curiosity I ducked in to a random mall and found myself laughing and making cat noises at a Maid Cafe to order cake. Taking things as they came, Bangkok and I had come to some sort of compromise and things were starting to flow again.