It took me three months to begin to get a glimmer of understanding about Bangkok, but what I understood from my first bewildered day was that I had entered another form of reality--that the world as I knew it had been knocked askew. Now that world seems as distant to me as the former glories of Ayuttaya.
I sat in a bar off Silom Road the other night waiting for people who never showed up. They were at the Sukhumvit branch of a Tex-Mex chain that serves up Cadillac margaritas, taco chips, real salsa and a passable guacamole--things that were available only at 5-star hotels on Mexican Night when I first arrived in this city. That there were now two of the same of this spot in Bangkok made me feel like Rip Van Winkle in the 21st century. And as I sat and ate over-priced guac, I felt out of place in its truest sense. In that bar, I could have been anywhere in the world--Seattle, Hong Kong, Fairbanks Alaska--it was like an upscale airport lounge.
There is so much of that international anonymity in Bangkok now. Unimaginative buildings reach for the sky and do nothing more than block the horizon. Under and above ground transit whisks people in clean, rapid capsules above the streets that in response are becoming blander and emptier. Food courts are rapidly supplanting ladies with woks who filled the sidewalk with fumes from frying chili and garlic at incendiary temperatures. Generic merchandise from China fills street stalls and markets. The city whose charm lay in its unpredictability is well on its way to becoming predictable. A place that was difficult to love but then became irreplaceable has become an easy lay--good for a night or two and then quickly forgotten. "Oh yeah, Bangkok, good hotel, bad air, great Italian meal at--what was that place anyway? You know, we found another branch of it when we were in Singapore..."
In the subway stations, where the passengers are largely all residents of the city, a promotional film plays over and over on a madness-inducing loop. A young Western couple is shown experiencing Thailand in a series of quick images--from a welcome at a luxurious Bangkok hotel to sunrise at Phanom Rung to a visit to the Crocodile Farm to many expensive spa shots and overlaying it all is the crooning theme of "Thailand Once in a Lifetime." For many people who watch it, Thailand is their entire lifetime and as they live it, they will never have the opulent experience shown to them over and over as they wait for their train. The message given to foreigners who see it is clear: "Come. Spend Your Money. Leave. You've Seen Thailand."
I think of what I have seen in my years here and what lingers isn't luxury. It's seeing a woman watching dogs lick her food cart clean at the end of a long day; it's riding in the back of a song-tao in Surin where most of the fellow-passengers spoke to me in Khmer; it's walking through Wat Po at sunset and watching men come in through the gates with cases of beer at the end of their workday; it's the voices of small children calling "Miss Janet" as I walked through a school yard in the morning; it is kindness beyond anything I ever knew before I came to this city. I leave holding memories that are good and bad but never indifferent--and the best of them all happened in the last century, not this one.
On to another country--and for the first time I leave Bangkok without taking pictures of everything I will miss. When I return, I will experience it as a short-term guest, visiting people I care for, but no longer searching for the place that I love because it's no longer there.