Sometimes, when it’s late at night and I close my eyes, I can still hear its noise.
It’s just about the only time it comes to me. Bangkok seems so at odds to Tottori’s silent spaces that, even only a couple days after returning, it felt like it’d happened to a different person. And maybe I wanted it that way. Maybe I didn’t want to be the person gritting his teeth that second Sunday morning in the airport, counting down the hours till I could get out. Didn’t want that kind of sustained bitterness.
It’s hard not to right this piece and make it not sound like a war-story—talk about overdramatic right? I’ve refused to touch this would-be post for over a month since I thought distance would bring some clarity. It hasn’t.
Because as much as I want to make it sound crazy and strange, when looked at another way, it might come off sounding so ordinary, so basic: I spent four days in Bangkok drinking through the night, pounding through the day, the heat and the food got to me and spent the next four in some form or another recovering. All of that is certainly true. But it limits everything that was going on inside during that, everything I still haven’t completely processed, and if I cut it down I’d be cutting out the best parts. It’s like reading the Wikipedia summary versus watching the damn movie.
So bear with me and my dramatacism here. Let’s go to Bangkok.
Bangkok is the first city I’ve been to that’s still in the growing pain stages. There are high rises and a slowly growing skytrain system, but I never got the City was in complete control of, well, the city—Bangkok, growing in all directions, restaurants under umbrellas, price-tagless, diverting streets blocked by stalls.
Transportation is always so indicative of how a city really works—what’s a body without the arteries? Hong Kong’s streamlined system made hopping across the city effortless, so much so it usually ended up being my favorite part of the place. Bangkok, you’re always throwing dice: maybe you’ll get there, maybe you won’t, you’re placing it up to chance though, buddy, and you better be ready for the consequences. Buses never completely stop—leaving you to hop on as it drives past—and getting on one of the public boats down the canals always leaves open the possibility you might just fall in that goopy-good stuff as you’re trying to swing in.
The city was never in complete control. And I, as a result, never really felt in control either.
Because what do I really remember from Bangkok? It’s all such a blur I really only remember sensations, travelling through spaces and days. I remember sweat stinging my eyes, or the smell it left on my shirts after congealing there all day. I remember the useless frustration of trying to navigate the various systems of transportation, or being stuck in a car/bus/tuk-tuks for hour after hour. I remember fighting, running, being so tired I could barely stand. Feeling more full of sensations—more drained— than ever before.
But what I’ll always remember—beginning and end, till death do us part—is that heat. Japanese summer’s back, with the thick air making me sweat as I write this. It’s not the same. Spending four days in a row in one of the world’s hottest cities during its hottest season (the hottest it can get before the thunderstorms hit and bring some relief), the weather is no longer a distraction or an amplifier of things you see around you (rainy picnic or sweaty sports day).
Here, the weather is the event, always managing to take precedence over whatever you were trying to get out and see. I passed so many temples walking through the streets, but my head was pounding so hard and the sweat stung so much, all I could think about was making it back to the hostel where there’d be some refuge or air conditioning.
I’ve always said I’m a summer kinda guy—I love the heat, even the sticky Japanese variety, and I always liked to say I could tough it through (“just don’t bring me back to Winnipeg in January, and we good”). I said something along those lines in Bangkok too. That I’d get through it. I’d be allright. It was a lie, and it was my downfall.
When the heat’s that intense, it robs you of your full senses. I wasn’t able to ‘feel’ the city out the way I usually do. I didn’t have the patience to people watch, and the smells stewing under the sun became so intense I didn’t have the courage to truly breath it in.
Beyond that, the daylight is just a collection of flashing images: here, a rocking boat down the river, towers on one bank and shanties on the other; there, a golden Buddha twenty feet tall, rising from the lilies; here, an army of tuk-tuk vans, rolling down the dusty streets like cavalry; there, market stands curling down a narrow alleyway like a spinal cord, the chopped chicken heads and the sautéing water against the yelling hum of people and generators.
And then the night came, and the City—this great conjunction of cars and pollution and food rotting in alleys—became Bangkok—the nighttime city, the den of sin and second hangovers.
My last blogpost focused on the special quality of Japan’s nighttime—the feeling of it being alive—but that’s been a subtle phenomenon which has ultimately taken me months to understand. The life coming from this city had, well, quite a bit more of the human factor involved. At night the markets, never closing till at least midnight, grew with the red lights on its trinkets and gained shape in the shadows, became treasure maps marking secret hoards, encouraging to look through all the tikiheads or plastic boobs or knock-off armani’s for something underneath. You noticed people smiling at you; you could hop on a tuk-tuk and feel the energy of streets as the wind spread the lights through your hair.
And that nightlife. Man. I’ve been to places that do technically more—bigger clubs, cheaper entrance, longer hours, hipper bars, sure. But no city gives guaranteed adventure after the sun touches down like here. Nowhere else can you watch the sun touch across the sprawl at the glass table of a gilded rooftop bar (go for the single drink, pretending you could ever afford more than one), go gay club hopping, take a breaks running between silk-strung stalls and ivory caves, take shots and helium balloons in the raucous—wild-west calamity Jane sortin’—foreigner district, finally ending in the sex show district, where the red lights rise red over your head like you’re trapped between the sides of a slow cooker.
These different places are thrown across the city, grown up in their own pockets like different STD’s attached to different wrong-swerve stories. They’re different cities under the same light-poisoned sky: when the cab driver was driving me through the city from the airport at 11 pm, I was struck by how faceless the city was. A tower here, a group of houses like lanterns over there. Nothing resembling a city-scape, a grow-up-to-the-top. Once I got to know the city by night and all its contradictions, this complete lack of an outward identity only deepened the intrigue: here was a place that could be any place.
In recent years the city’s turned to actively suppressing its raucous reputation, putting curfews on bars (a shockingly Vancouver-like 2 am!) and bans on convenience liquor past the Cinderella-hour. I barely noticed. Somehow, when the night was supposed to go on—as it always did—the city found a way to keep me going, underground bars or outdoor ones, new friends to deepen old habits. It’s just another sign that the City can’t control Bangkok, that gridlocked many-headed hydra. Like the rest of us, it’s just holding the reins, tryna hold on.
Those first four nights, I found my energy in people and Adderall. The night would move faster and faster like a spinning top until it was all circus lights and festival music. Somehow, even these moments still had more clarity than the days.
At first, the days were okay too: the happiest were always when I managed to escape the city. After coming close to a crying fit trying to line up the busses that would get me there, I made my train out to Ayutthaya with minutes to spare. Breathing again—it’s all okay—I watched the city melt and the countryside unfold on an old train that chugged along like a laughing grandfather. Amongst the ruins of a long-shattered Thailand, I got my Ankor-fix, taking photos and contemplating the meaning of Buddhas without heads, temples without walls, palaces without kings. Let it sink in. Or, at least breath: bike through streets that aren’t trying to kill you, and breath.
The day in Ayuthaya brought a clarity that I thought would set a trend: my feet weren’t trembling, my head wasn’t spinning. I could finally get ahold on myself and this place. I was so relaxed I didn’t mind the two hour wait it took our hired bus to push in through the city; didn’t realize how much that would set the real trend for me and Bangkok.
I tried other daytrips after that. The next one took us two hours to get in and out of the city, and although the island and its golden Buddha and its raised villages was incredible, I had a harder time convincing myself it’d been completely worth it. The city was pulling me further in,
And things were catching up. Now I’d wake up—way later than intended—and my nerves would be as shot as a violin with broken strings. Nervous sensations ran up and down my blood as I pawed through dusty streets, trying to find a direction, trying to find shade that wasn’t so heavy.
I started realizing just how badly I needed out. My head was poisoned and my body ached. I needed out: needed getting to one of those islands all the hippies are talking about. I read there was a pristine, gorgeous, right-outta-your-college-poster style island just a couple hours southeast of Bangkok: saw pictures, saw it as my way out. I got on the bus that fifth morning, pulling myself out at a shockingly-reasonable time of day, and felt like this trip—like all my other trips in Asia—would work itself out perfectly: I had my fun, now I get my clarity.
It’s not easy admitting you’re wrong. Things that work for you in other places—Hong Kong hitting the fever pitch—don’t work here. That you can keep running and there won’t be consequences—that, just because you’re young and relatively wealthy and on vacation, normal rules don’t apply. Things won’t catch up. That having a panic attack in the middle of a street your third day in doesn’t matter when you can hit the rest button on an island with boats and tiki-shacks. I was still thinking that as the city vanished, as the bus pushed me out and the waters opened up. I was free again.
It wasn’t gonna be that easy.