My first impressions of living in Bangkok when I moved here in January 2005. It was meant to be for a month. It turned into two and a half years and counting…
I hated Bangkok when I first arrived here two years ago. Now I’m living here. I’m not quite sure how this happened.
I can’t say I now love Bangkok, but I’ve certainly grown quite fond of it. Familiarity is a large part of it – I’ve passed through the city so many times en route to somewhere else (Bangkok being the travel hub of South East Asia) that its chaos seems almost homely. Quentin Crisp once said of New York City that “it’s like being under starter’s orders as soon as you walk out your front door”. Bangkok is the same, only on heart-busting steroids. The oppressive heat that hangs hemmed in by the streets, the fume smog collecting in the afternoon sun underneath the garguantuan skytrain concrete flyovers, the endless gridlocked traffic that makes every motorway a parking lot only negotiable by suicidally-skillful motorbike drivers, the Escher-designed uneven pavements that have disappeared beneath the cheek-by-jowl street vendors who set up and colonise every spare flagstone of sidewalk to sell you something. Bangkok is truly bizarre, because it’s a city that hasn’t been designed with people in mind. (What am I saying? There’s no design at all). Here the car not only got to be king but also to have its depraved way with everything around it. The ubiquitous light grey concrete which is the city’s favourite building block is eternally streaked with exhaust stains. Walking 10 yards will leave you sweating, sore-footed and covered in traffic soot, and quite probably deaf from the traffic rumble and the bus-stop mounted plasma TV screens cunningly placed to entrance drivers and pedestrians alike. Bangkok is Bladerunner on a budget.
And yet…I like it here. Whilst Bangkok is undeniably chaotic, noisy, smelly and dirty, there’s a vibrancy that goes with it. Not one that you would necessarily want to be immersed in for more than a few days – which makes you feel pity for the aforementioned poor fuckers flogging their wares from the pavement inches from the emission puking traffic flow – but vibrant nonetheless. When you arrive in certain streets in Bangkok, it’s like discovering an oasis. And the clamour of the streets outside makes the serenity of these spots all the better. Pa Athit near Khao San Road is one of these places – lots of great Thai student cafes, coffee shops and cake shops, all next to a fort and park right on the river. Taking a trip down the river itself is another great way to escape the roads and cut through the heart of the city, with some spectacular views of the Grand Palace to boot. The little soi that runs outside Jim Thompson’s House, my favourite tourist site in Bangkok, is stunning for being so near Siam Square, Bangkok’s nominal and nightmarishly busy centre, and yet utterly peaceful.
Now that I’ve settled here, albeit just for this month, I feel quite excited to explore more of the city. In part this is because I am staying near the Victory Monument Skytrain station, which lets me scuttle back and forth from the air-conditioned quiet confines of the city’s monorail into the madness at street level and then back up and out again when I want. This makes a big difference to taking cabs which inevitably take half an hour to get anywhere, even if it’s a street five minutes walk away.
It’s difficult to define the point when you can say you really know a city. If ever. Before I lived in London, I made frequent trips there, always to disconnected oases scattered across the city whose geographical proximity I could never get a grip on. Once I lived there, the dots began to connect – and there’s a simple pleasure to feeling these places mentally fall into, er, place. This is the great moment I am at with Bangkok – last night I realised that my favourite newly discovered secondhand bookshop, Dasa, is only a 10 minute walk away from my favourite pub, The Dubliner – yet I hadn’t put the two being near each other together at all on my previous visits. It’s all a bit Alice – popping up out of holes and then disappearing down them again.