Almost twenty years ago, I fell in love with a city. Bangkok in 2012 is wildly different from the way it was in 1985--but under its newly sophisticated gloss, some things remain the same. It's true that its small children no longer scream at the sight of a foreign face, and coffee is more in the mode of Starbucks than the caffeine-in-a-baggie that I used to carry around by its rubber-band handle, but there are still things that persist that I've always loved and still do.
1) Motorcycle taxi drivers-- Those intrepid entrepreneurs who have never let me down--they know where to go and how to get there. When in doubt, I look for the guys in the vests--and sometimes when I need a lift to my spirits rather than a lift to a destination, I turn to them. There's little that can't be cured by a motorcycle ride down a busy highway.
2) River boat whistles--A language of its own--stop, back up, go--imagine a jet plane where the co-pilot communicates with the pilot though a little tin whistle. On dry land, whistles are disappearing--no longer does every security guard use one at the sight of a vehicle. On the river, that piercing call is still a common language.
3) Little buses that resemble tin cans and think they are motorcycles--When I first came to Bangkok, the only thing my boss told me NOT to do was ride the little green buses. When I finally did, I was usually the only foreigner on board. Now they're orange.
4) Fruit sellers in pickup trucks with megaphones--The first time I heard this weird, disembodied call on a quiet soi, it woke me from a sound sleep and I was sure it meant a revolution was at hand. They still wake me but at least now I can understand the names they call.
5) The sting of chili and garlic fried in a wok--It isn't as pervasive as it used to be. It's hot, hard work--my favorite wok chef retired to run a business where she sits at a desk under airconditoning with her Alaskan husky by her side. I can't blame her but I wish that the art she practiced wasn't so hard to find in 21st century Bangkok.
6) Cute, cheap shoes--Everybody told me Thai shoes would be too small for me and that was sad because they were everywhere and they were fantastic. They still are--and somewhere along the line I courted instant humiliation, asked to try on a pair and to my great joy, they fit! They teach the nature of impermanence, since they last for fifteen minutes, but it's easy to practice non-attachment when replacements are so easy--and so much fun--to find.
7) Wet markets--Food and flowers and frivolity all in one place--I've furnished entire households from these sprawling collections of fresh fish and crockery and polyester sheets and alarm clocks and Buddha amulets. Hot and crowded and completely irresistible, despite Tesco Lotus and Carrefour, the markets prevail.
8) Fresh fruit carts--The best invention the world has ever known--pineapple, green mango, papaya, cantaloupe, watermelon, sliced and handed over in a plastic bag with a skewer and some chili powder and sugar as a garnish. I can't eat fruit anywhere else--nothing tastes like Thai fruit anywhere.
9) Isaan food--Instant picnic no matter where it's eaten. And no. You can't get it in the states--not even a ghost of the grilled chicken and catfish laab and green papaya salad or grilled fish with mango that is on every streetcorner in Bangkok.
10) 7/11--Where else can you buy minutes on your mobile phone, a bottle of Stoli or Johnny Walker, a jar of instant coffee, and a bucket of essentials to take to a monastery as an offering?
In October, there will be a whole new cluster of places to explore in Bangkok that have sprouted up over the past year, but this list is a large reason why I'm going back. My love affair with Bangkok is anchored by these things.