Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Back in the BKK (Bangkok)

This was originally written a little over a year ago after my family and I went to go visit family and friends in Bangkok, Thailand after recently moving to Muscat, Oman. I was having difficulty adjusting to the slower pace of life that is Muscat, so I wrote about it. But, I had forgotten that I had written about this experience. I just recently came across it and here it is.

My transition to Oman had been challenging for me. It reminded me of when the actor Ray Liotta played the mobster Henry Hill in the Martin Scorsese classic movie Goodfellas. Henry Hill was a mobster who was placed in the Federal Witness Protection Program (He should have moved to Muscat, no one would have found him here :)) and I will never forget the scene. Liotta was walking out of his front door to collect the morning paper in some dull monochromatic suburban enclave. He was doing a voice over as his character decried the lack of action in his new area and said, “Today everything is different. There’s no action… After I got here I ordered pasta with marinara sauce and I got a plate of egg noodles and ketchup.” Although I find the food in Muscat to be very good, I can sympathize with the sentiment.

I was back in the BKK for 3 ½ days with my family to visit family and friends. The idea to write this blurb struck me as I was in the middle of Bangkok on Sukhumvit-"Suk" for short (Sukhumvit is the main thoroughfare in downtown Bangkok) Soi 3-Nana (Soi means street in Thai) waiting to cross the street after having lunch at one of my favorite all-time restaurants, The Beirut. Located in the bottom floor of a shopping complex, The Beirut is nothing special in terms of atmosphere or ambience; just solid, delicious Lebanese food with great service.

As I was on the corner waiting for the light to change, I just marveled at the cacophony of sounds and all the action before me. 

Time stood still and it felt like I was the only person on the corner as the world around me was unfolding in slow motion. Then, out of the corner of my left eye, an object got my attention. It was a big neon pink tour bus turning onto Sukhumvit. The group on the bus appeared to be Japanese tourists and in the middle of the bus was a woman and she was staring at me. I was used to being stared at after living in Asia for sometime so I just did what was natural and I returned her stare. We then both smiled and then we both began laughing. I think we were both smiling and laughing at the chaos and somewhat absurdity that can be Bangkok. And this brief non-verbal moment that we shared encapsulated what I loved and was missing about the BKK. Making eye contact and exchanging a moment with a stranger, having my senses assaulted by pungent odors, unmuffled vehicles with some that were creatively assembled traveling in various directions, sweating profusely due to tropical heat and humidity, and just not knowing what in the world I would see next. I have always described Bangkok as a chaotic city that somehow worked, “controlled chaos” and I missed the chaos. The chaos made me feel alive and this is why I was ecstatic to be in Bangkok. Hell, I was ecstatic just being on the corner of Suk 3 on a Friday afternoon experiencing what is Bangkok!

I dig cities, always have. As a child, I was captivated by the city lights at night and as I have gotten older, I have become captivated by the rhythm of cities. And a city like Bangkok just feeds into my being and sates my soul. Bangkok is a smelly, sprawling, polluted, crowded, traffic laden land of a thousand smiles that I love. I love the options that Bangkok affords and I love all the affordable options: cheap movies in great theaters, foot massages, spas, quality tailored made clothes/shoes/really anything you want made. Great nightclubs/bars that attract world class DJs, cheap dvds and cds, incredible food, great affordable restaurants, but even cheaper and many times better street food, various travel options, people from all over the globe, and most importantly, the Thai people! Also, it seems that everyone who comes to Bangkok has a story and these stories and the characters in these stories are as much Bangkok as the physical city itself. And I missed the characters, I missed the stories.  

I was thinking all of the above as I was about to walk one of my favorite stretches of Bangkok, the Sukhumvit Soi 3 to Sukhumvit Soi 5 corridor. This stretch of Sukhumvit always intrigues me and never ceases to entertain me. The stretch begins at Suk 3/1 the Arab Soi. The closes one can get to the Middle East without leaving Bangkok and since living in the Middle East, I appreciate this street even more. Just like the Middle East, this street comes alive at night. All kinds of action and the food, a great place to get some Middle Eastern treats. I pass the Arab Soi on my left and then on my right, I am propositioned by a few prostitutes. Ladies, men dressed as ladies, some in between; it’s always the same scene. I keep walking, decline their advances and then on my left, I hit one of my favorite bookstores, The Bookzine. I always come across something good to read when I’m in the Bookzine. I found one of my favorite books, The Game by Neil Strauss in there. It was featured prominently one day in the window. I picked it up and never put it down. Good read, great quotes! After The Bookzine, I make my way to my tailor George and his son Jolly at Barons Fashions. I’ve been going to Barons when I first arrived in  Bangkok. I had to go to Barons Fashion when I first arrived in Bangkok because I could not find any clothes in Bangkok that fit me! They make everything at Barons; it’s always good quality and the prices, fantastic! When I go back to visit, I usually get some slacks and shirts made and they are always ready by the time I’m ready to leave. George even came by the airport one time to bring me my clothes before my family and I departed. That’s great service! However, a trip to Barons is never quick. I tend to be a task oriented person and I love crossing items off of a list; but, once you enter Barons, you have to have a drink, alcoholic or otherwise. You have to have a seat and a conversation, “How’s the family?” “How is the place you are currently living?” How long are you back in the Bangkok?” “How is the place you are living compared to Bangkok?” “When are you coming back to Bangkok?” “You have any new pictures of your children so we can place them up on our wall?” I have really come to appreciate the conversations and the unhurried pace that takes place when I enter the door of Barons. Then after a drink, a conversation, then its time to pick out the fabric that I want to wear, the style, get re-measured, find out when the clothes will be ready, and then I’m back on Sukhumvit. 

I continue on and on my right there are the hearing impaired vendors communicating and gesticulating in a medium all their own selling bootleg cds, dvds, soccer (football) jerseys, trinkets, you name it. I always peruse their wares, but never purchase, keep on walking. As I walk, the world passes me by, tourists, locals, older men with much younger women or men; it’s always a scene. Then, right before I get to the end, I pass the tuk-tuk (a tuk-tuk is a glorified riding lawn mower on wheels) drivers who always ask me if I want a ride? There is this one tuk-tuk driver in particular who always tries to get my attention by saying, "Yo man, what's up?" And you know what, he always does get my attention, because I'm not expecting to hear that expression from a middle aged Thai tuk-tuk driver. 

I then get to Soi 5. I could take the above ground train (The Skytrain), but I usually opt for a motorcycle taxi. I know, me on the back off a motorcycle? But, I love riding motorcycle taxis in Bangkok. It’s another way that makes me feel alive. Weaving in and out of traffic, getting to my destination in great time, and smelling like exhaust while wearing a helmet that doesn’t fit, what’s not to like :)? I hop on the back of a motorcycle, haggle with the driver somewhat (I don’t like haggling, the ride is cheap already, but haggling is expected) we agree on a price, I put on a helmet and then tell the driver, “Cha, cha,” which means slow in Thai and then we are off. I reach my destination (my brother-in-laws place) in great time and in a relatively safe manner. 

I think about the events of the day in the quiet of my brother-in-laws home away from the din of the street below and a smile emerged on my face. As always, I’m glad to be back in Bangkok, but I also realize that if my family and I were to move back to Bangkok, life would be different than before. I have come to realize as I have gotten older that one can never truly go home again and that visiting somewhere and living somewhere are two vastly different experiences. I relay the events of the day to the family and we all wonder what the evening has in store for us, like we always do when we are back in the BKK :)!


Anonymous said...

beautiful story!!

Joan said...

This is some of your best writing yet, Haynes. Loved how you described the scene using so many senses. :)