Last summer I returned to my home in Bangkok to find few traces of the unrest that had turned the downtown core to a battleground and no hints of any sort of reconciliation between the government and the Red Shirts. The burned shopping centers were already being rebuilt. If I hadn’t read the news articles about the battle that had consumed the end of April and much of May, I would never know that my city had been full of smoke and gunfire a week or so before I returned after a three-month absence.
There were ripples on the domestic front. Tensions that had to have been exacerbated by the political debacle had come to a flashpoint between my housemates and the woman who had been our housekeeper for fifteen years. She packed up her meager belongings and left in tears.
The man who sold coffee on the main street of our neighborhood now brought his baby son to work with him every day. One of my favorite restaurants had been closed for a month because of the street fighting outside its walls and now was almost empty every time I went to it.
Adrenaline surges during times of crisis and ebbs away after, leaving exhaustion behind. What I returned to was a post-adrenaline Bangkok, and since I had never seen it in an exhausted state before, this was more disturbing than the burned-out buildings.
I left it. I was certain I could make a home in another Southeast Asian city, and in Penang I found what I was sure I needed. I was mistaken.
Since 1995 I have lived off and on in Bangkok. I was never completely sure of why it continued to pull me back. Now I know.
It’s the people who bring their energy and creativity to that place from all over the Kingdom of Thailand. They make this a kinetic city, constantly moving and changing and redefining and adopting and absorbing. Bangkok is a city that is never going to be completed and that makes for some rather stunning dissonance within its continually expanding borders. But it has, as my friend Elizabeth observed recently, “great infrastructure.”
And I agree, although the infrastructure I salute isn’t the Skytrain or the Underground or the new train to the airport. It’s the stall only feet away from a shopping center on Sukhumvit that sets up tables every night to serve one dish only—the best chicken rice I’ve had anywhere in Asia. (Yes, Penang roasts the chicken they use for this dish—which is terrific—but the sauces from stall to stall all taste the same, and that’s where the excellence of this meal resides.)
It’s the network of trucks and motorcycles and riverboats that will get you where you want to go, anywhere in the city, far beyond the newer forms of mass transit. It’s the man from Chiang Rai in my neighborhood who makes fabulous food from the north of the country and the thousands of women who have made papaya salad and grilled chicken Thailand’s national dish. It’s the exquisite manners that children are taught from the day they can bring their chubby little hands together in a wai. It’s the markets that sell fresh food still, all over the city, even though supermarkets are everywhere nearby. It’s the shining, glossy, clean hair and the well-scrubbed bodies of people who live in one of the most polluted cities of the world but who never smell bad themselves. It’s the temples, still supported as social centers, providing education and shelter for people who might not otherwise be able to afford these things.
Yes, it’s the bookstores that draw me back as well and the eccentric and original expats I’ve met who have lived in this place far longer than I. And the lovely, nondurable shoes for sale on almost every corner, and jasmine garlands and fruit stalls and beautiful blazing sunsets. But these things exist because of Thai people and the way they have chosen to shape their capital city.
I will have days and even weeks when I complain about the trendiness of my home in the world—Krispy Kreme anyone?—and the insanity of its politics. But those things aren’t the core of Bangkok—that’s the coffee-slurping that causes every long-term relationship to quaver and scream. I will take off when I need to, for the rest of my life, but Bangkok is where I choose to be and will choose to be, over and over, because of the people who live there and how they live their lives.