I’ve now recently returned to Seattle for the summer. It was not easy leaving Thailand, but I am happy to be back home with friends and am busy getting the house and yard ready for summer. With any luck, I will have an easy transition back to life here and Seattle will have a fantastic summer with lots of sun. And with even more luck, I’ll return to Thailand in the fall. In this post, I wanted to just touch on a few of the odd/interesting experiences on the streets that stood out for me during my time in the “Big Mango” (aka Bangkok). This will likely be my last post for a while, as the blog will be on hiatus while I’m back in Seattle. If you see another post from me after this one, that will be good news because it’s a likely indicator that I’m back in Thailand, or I’m on my way there!
This trip, I purposely spent the majority of my time in Bangkok. I rented an apartment there, got a gym membership, and got into a somewhat regular daily routine. I wanted to see, as best I could, what it would be like to live and work there on a longterm basis. It’s one thing to visit a foreign city on vacation, and a very different thing to live there. I spent a lot of time meeting and talking with other expats living and working there – a few Americans, but most of them were from Australia, New Zealand or Europe. They all provided invaluable insight and advice on living and working there, and I’m thankful to count them as friends that I can connect with again when I return.
When I first started coming to Thailand 12+ years ago, I really didn’t like Bangkok. I would stay there for a night or two when I flew in, and a night or two on the way out, and the rest of the vacation was spent elsewhere in Thailand. I didn’t like the smell of the city: the exhaust from all the cars, the cooking oil from all the street vendors, the odd smells of fish and other things being cooked all along the sidewalks, the smell of sewer along many streets, etc. I don’t know exactly when it all changed for me, but now I love being in Bangkok, and even love the smell of it (well, except the sewer smell, but it’s not nearly as bad as it was years ago).
The Street Scene
One of my favorite things to do most days was to walk down the small soi (street) from my apartment up to the main road, usually on my way to the gym or to the SkyTrain (public light rail transit). It was only about a 6-block walk, but it was always filled with an array of sights, smells and sounds that I never got tired of. In the mornings, all the shopkeepers along the road would put out small offering baskets with fruit, rice and water as daily offerings to their Buddha statues. They’d also light several sticks of incense to burn next to it on the sidewalk. The smell of incense wafting down the street from all those shops was a fantastic way to start my day, along with watching the reverent routines of the workers praying as they gave their offerings to Buddha. Now, I’ll also say that many of those shops were massage parlors, and what happened behind those doors the rest of the day and evening may not quite align with the religious and spiritual aspects that I saw in the mornings, but that’s just another thing I love about Bangkok… it’s a giant dichotomy of deep religious observances, while at the same time being the sex capitol of the world.
As I would get closer to the main road, the sidewalks on both sides of the streets were filled with vendors with their metal food carts. Also on the sidewalk, and in the street, were small tables and chairs set up for people to eat their meals – you don’t get much more al fresco dining than that! The food was an interesting mix: one cart had a large vat of cooking oil where they were deep frying various meats, including insects like crickets and cockroaches; another had a giant wok where they were cooking dishes like Phad Thai; another had a huge pot of boiling water that was used to make noodle soups; and others had metal boxes filled with burning charcoal to cook fish, squid, chicken, sausage, and just about anything else you can imagine; and others were filled with fresh fruits they’d peel and cut for you, or vegetables they’d make into various salads for you (the spicey papaya salad is one of the best things I’ve ever eaten in life!). It wasn’t always the most appetizing-looking food to me (especially considering I’m vegetarian), but it was always fascinating to watch them cook, serve and eat. And the mix of smells of cooking oil, charcoal, and all the various meats and vegetables came together to form an incredibly good and memorable smell. Every single day, it was the same vendors cooking the same things, and likely they’ll spend every day of their life doing that job. I have great respect for those people and their work ethic…
It’s amazing how much “mobile commerce” actually happens on the streets of Bangkok. Most well-known, of course, are the food carts but there’s far more than that. There were several carts I saw that were basically a motorcycle where the front part was cut off and a cart welded onto it. One cart drove around selling handmade brooms, dusters and dust pans (which frankly work better than any fancy Western broom you’ve ever used). Another cart was selling all kinds of plastic bowls, spoons, stools and chairs – exactly the same things being used by all the street food vendors. A street food cart vendor doesn’t need a lot of supplies, but the few that they do need are peddled to them by other vendors – genius!
One of my favorite sights on my street was a lady who set up a little manual foot pedal-powered sewing machine on the sidewalk. Every single day (except a couple of Buddhist holidays), she was there, under an umbrella next to a big tree, with her sewing machine and a bag full of various clothing items that she was mending. For a little extra income, she also had a metal cooler next to her that she sold bottles of water, Coke and Fanta (Fanta soda is huge in Thailand…). I don’t know what was so fascinating to me about her, but I *loved* walking by her every day and smiling and saying hello in Thai (which was about all I knew how to speak). One night, one of the buttons on my shorts popped off. I don’t think I hardly slept a wink that night, as I was so excited to be able to take them to the sewing lady the next morning to have the button sewn back on! I dropped them off on my way to the gym, and she had them done a little while later when I walked back. She charged me 50 Baht, which is about $1.60… I thought that was a bit steep to sew a single button back on, but hey, the experience was worth a hundred times that. I wish I could speak more Thai, because I would have loved to be able to have a conversation with that lady. Despite the communication gap, she clearly was a fun and lovely lady.
In the evenings, at a few different locations around my “neighborhood”, there were small bars set up on the sidewalks. They would set up around 7pm, and usually they were just a small wooden bar on wheels, a few strings of LED lights for decoration, a few stools to sit on, and a decent selection of booze (vodka, whiskey, rum, gin, tequila, beer). Clearly, the liquor laws aren’t quite as strict as they are in America! I’ll admit that there were a couple of occasions I stopped by for a drink, sitting fascinated on the sidewalk watching life go by.
No political system is perfect, and certainly the American political system has its share of faults. Thailand’s politics are no different in that respect, but they seem to be much more front-and-center. Almost every single day, the majority of the front page of the newspaper was about politics, and more often than not, the vehement arguments between parties and the claims of corruption (it’s shocking how many people in Thai politics have other family members in other areas of government and politics…). While I don’t want to bore the readers here with politics, I will just say that there’s two big opposing political factions called “red shirts” and “yellow shirts”. These groups started after the last coup that overthrew the government in 2006. Periodically, these groups will hold large rallies where everyone gathers in some part of the city and sports their colored shirts.
One day I was going to a store and didn’t realize there was a huge red shirt rally going on. It was to mark the 2-year anniversary of another rally that turned violent and several people were killed. I got off the Skytrain and began walking, and was soon engulfed in a sea of tens of thousands of people wearing red shirts. They were having their rally in a large plaza next to one of the malls, and overflowed into several blocks of streets surrounding it. I was walking along an elevated walkway so I could see down to the streets below, and it was mind-boggling to look out over a sea of red in all directions. The mall and several stores that I had planned to go to that day were closed because of the rally, so it kind of ruined my plans but it was far more interesting to witness that instead of doing the little shopping trip I had planned.
In the past 8 months, I’ve had the opportunity to stay in Bangkok during the rainy season (and the floods that shut down the city…although they never really made it to the inner city), the “cool” season which is roughly equal to a Seattle summer, and the hot season which is aptly named and the daily temperature is approximately at the point where human flesh melts into a liquid goo. I’ve also gotten to go to some of my other favorite places around Thailand, see old friends, and make many new ones. I’ve experienced three new countries (Myanmar, Indonesia and Singapore), each of which were incredibly memorable in their own way. It’s been phenomenal experience, and I’m beyond thankful for having the opportunity to do this.
What’s next for me? I don’t know for certain yet. I do know for certain that I absolutely want to try to figure out a way to live in Bangkok on a permanent basis, hopefully starting this fall. I have several thoughts and ideas on how to make that happen, but need to do some more legwork on them over the coming months. And I’m very much looking forward to that. Wish me luck!
Kap Kun Krap!