Returning to Bangkok: Same-Same, But Different
Humid, flood-prone and home to 15 million, Bangkok is a marvel.
From full moon to full circle, back to Bangkok six years after I first arrived here.
From the moment we walked out of the terminal, the humidity hit us—or should I say surrounded, swallowed and swamped us.
“I feel like I just walked inside a mouth,” Sue said.
“I feel like I’m wading through crème brulee,” I countered.
Indeed, there was a sweetness to it. It’s funny how certain smells can slip you through a wormhole, catapulting you back to a certain point in time.
As the Bangkok airport doors opened, the wet humidity flooded us along with the smell of nectar and petrol, and I was immediately brought back six years, my three best friends on my arm, as we strutted into the city streets with newly purchased harem pants in one hand, a bottle of Chang beer in the other.
The first day around Bangkok on this trip, however, was, as they say in Thailand, “same-same, but different.” Due to the lethargic, mind-numbing effects of jet lag, we decided to escape the madness of Bangkok’s rush hour by taking a slow boat around the city.
Like Venice, Bangkok used to be veined by canals, a main artery of Thai trade. However, since it's become an urban centre, home to some 15 million, many of those canals have been manually filled in to improve land travel and reduce a once-troubling cholera epidemic. The shoreline of the Chao Phraya River has been redefined.
Laundry hangs from nearly every apartment balcony in Bangkok.
Our videographer’s close friend, Steve, met us at the river’s shoreline. He’s been living in Bangkok for the last four years, is proficient in Thai and drives as confidently as a local. He tells us that Bangkok is kind of a unique case study: while it's marked heavily by urbanization and technology and business, parts of it—some would say the most important parts; its spirit—remain as it was.
"You can't tell someone to go buy a mango from a grocery store for 50 baht when they can just go over to that tree and pick it for free,” he says. “They haven't let go of that. The funny thing is, that's what we Westerners are moving back to: local, home-grown.”
As we buzzed down the length of the river and hung a right into one of the narrower, few remaining canals, we pass through a series of locks developed to help curb flooding in Bangkok. Steve tells us that Bangkok has a bit a of flooding problem; because so many of the canals have been buried, and because Bangkok sits on a natural flood plain, the water has no place to go. One short monsoon rain and you’re up to your ankles.
From the starboard side, we see simple, beautiful water gardens in front of houses that brave the canal’s hand-cut shore. Laundry hangs from virtually every high rise in sight, dangling from rafters outside of windows, brushing the flaking exteriors, threatening to fall into the murky waters below.
"Just as I welcomed a memory of myself at the arrival gates, it seems Bangkok too welcomes many versions of itself"
At once, the glittering roofs of stupas are just visible over large concrete walls, and the crowns of Thai-designed skyscrapers bedazzle the skyline; brand-new pickup trucks park next to shanty houses that seem to be held up on nothing more than a prayer; millennial urbanites purchase crinkle-cut fries from elder vendors shaded by straw hats.
Just as I welcomed a memory of myself at the arrival gates, it seems Bangkok too welcomes many versions of itself. At least for this outsider, the city seems comfortable in its ambiguity. While I’m seeing new shades of Bangkok, and new dimensions of the people who live here, one thing has stayed the same: the pad Thai is just as delicious as I remember.
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