It's a long way home when you're trying to find your way
It's been a year of revisiting and reevaluation, so I suppose it's fitting I found myself back in Bangkok. Last November, it became the first city I had been to in Asia. Now ten months later, traveling through the continent's southeastern bloc, I suddenly found myself back in its heady mix. When our itinerary was still in its infancy, I hadn't been particularly psyched about returning. I enjoyed the Thai capital well enough the first time, but going back carried an air of "been there, done that." I didn't want to pass up the potential highlights of Seoul or Vientiane or Hanoi, none of which made our final cut, in order to retread old ground.
But as our plane touched down on Suvarnabhumi Airport, I was growing progressively more excited. As our neon-pink cab spirited us down the highway, past a proud, idiosyncratic cityscape and swarms of royal-yellow shirts (worn on Mondays especially to honor King Bhumibol), I was getting practically giddy. (Or as people who know me will tell you, as giddy as I get.) It felt like a homecoming of sorts, a known entity in a litany of unknowns. At the same time, there was a wariness too, because I had remembered Bangkok as overwhelming and intense. Last year, I had been staying near the Victory Monument, where bodies clogged the narrow streets and frantic intersections at all hours. I thought of it as a circus, a zoo, an Asian Gotham--fast, polluted, delicious, lively, sprawling, thrilling, exhausting.
What a difference ten months make. This time around, Evan and I stayed pretty far off the grid in a northern outlet a fifteen-minute walk from the Saphan Kwai Skytrain stop. Our hostel was among my favorites of the trip, because it was secluded and peaceful. A quality restaurant in the back served all my favorite traditional Thai dishes--curries, kee mao, fishcakes--at no more than seventy baht for an entree (slightly over two American dollars). Most mornings, I'd just laze around, sitting by their bathtub-sized pool, downing bottles of Tiger beer to wash down the sweet, piquant chili-pepper heat. I'd hang out listening to the German and Scottish accents intermingling, while I wrote stories in a travel-battered notebook. The irony wasn't lost on me that a resort town like Phuket proved stressful and annoying, while I'd stumbled upon true relaxation in a nonstop metropolis of millions.
When I did venture out, everything about Bangkok seemed freshly wondrous. Part of the reason was that I now knew which areas to avoid (seedy-to-the-max Pat Pong at night, for one) and what I should expect. With a second visit, I was able to custom-make my trip much like a playlist, cutting out the filler tracks, the awful skits and the misplaced experiments. When I went to the backpacker neighborhood, Khao San Road, I knew to leave after a few hours. The novelty of it wore off fast just as I knew one quick, sociological stroll past the red-lit Soi Cowboy was plenty. On the other hand, I also grasped I just had to head back to Polo Fried Chicken for another round of their incredible poultry, to stroll around the green expanses of Lumpini Park, and to take over the remotely located Khrua Rommai for another belt-testing feast. And of course, as anyone that spends even an hour in Bangkok will understand, I also knew the street food was an unmissable event. Every new street brought new smokes, new stinks, new stimuli to inhale. Food nuts there will rightfully overload on the sheer breadth of skewers, noodles, tropical fruits, raw meats, teas, desserts, stews and seafood that just a block-long walk can yield.
On my first visit, I was sure that five days in Bangkok was plenty for me. I was ready to move on, needing a break from the bustle, and anticipating seeing what else Thailand had in store. However, on this return trip, I would've happily stayed behind a few more weeks. With no pressure to see any more sights or be awed by any more temples, I was free to roam as a local would. I was free to grow attached, even nostalgic, and to view the city through a wider, more informed lens. Now I understand that Bangkok is everything I first thought it was, up to and including overwhelming and intense, but it can be intimate and calm as well. It can be inviting and revitalizing, if you just slow down and give yourself the time to look.
* MP3: "You Gotta Feel It" - Spoon from Kill The Moonlight [Buy it]
* Also: On another note, this week, I had the chance to hang out with some former Stylus magazine writers as they were performing the last rites on their publication. It was your expected battle royale of debating The Blueprint vs. Reasonable Doubt, Manitoba vs. Caribou, and just how overrated the Avalanches are. If your eyeballs need a momentary rest from this here blog, definitely check out Jeff Weiss' much-beloved The Passion of the Weiss at its new home and the more recent development Flashes of Quincy as Tal gets it started over there. Oh, and what the hell, here's Barry's most canonical essay for good measure too. RIP Stylus...