There is a progression that you go to when you travel to a new city that is fairly standard: airport, car or train ride into the city, hotel, then finally experiencing the city itself at the street level.
I flew into Bangkok last Sunday at about 4 in the afternoon. The trip was ten hours, without the two hour delay at Schiphol airport because the plane had a missing part and they had to break out the spare 747 and change gates for 350 passengers.
Bangkok isn’t exactly a new city for me, I was there on vacation with my parents once when we lived in Asia. That was about fifteen years ago. I had vague recollections of the heat, the humidity, the glitz of the royal palace, the tuk tuks, and the spicy food, but all were vague memories.
The airport we flew into was the brand new Bangkok International Airport. I had read accounts of the tremendous cost, the corruption involved, and the fact that many of the essential aspects of the airport did not function, but all that was visible was a brand spanking new concrete and glass airport that competes with any in the world. The spaces are cavernous with ceilings that look like they are covered in canvas. Very impressive.
The taxi ride into town started to bring back my own memories of living in Asia. The highway is mostly elevated from street level, and the impression you get is a sea of three to four story buildings stuck in between a jungle of palm trees. You see green, lots of green, and then the white, grey, and various tan colors of painted concrete buildings.
The city is enormous, sprawling as far as you can see. Bangkok is home to ten million people (in a country of 65 million), and the rapid economic development in the last twenty to thirty years have allowed for large migration from rural areas and enough development wealth to create skyscrapers dispersed throughout the city that look brand new.
Bangkok has that air of many Asian cities of an enormous colonization of the jungle. The city teems with people, cars, motorcycles, buses, and three wheeled taxis called tuk tuks. There is a sense of motion, of activity and liveliness, that is common to many Asian cities. Stores are open seven days a week and often late into the night. Although it is home to millions, you get the feeling that at the retail level, for most goods and services, everything is run by small shops and stalls. There are very few large chains or superstores. You can drive down any street and you will see an eclectic combination of niche shops that service probably a one or two square kilometer area. In Europe there may still be some level of this kind of retail store, but in the States, in most urban and suburban areas, it has completely vanished from the cultural memory.
The hotel was beautiful. We were booked in the Shangri-La hotel, which my father’s friend Mr. Angelini, used to be the General Manager for. Curiously enough, the Italian restaurant in the hotel was named “Angelini’s”.
My first day there we took a walk down the streets by the hotel to get a feel for the town and convince ourselves that we were really in Asia. That’s when I started remembering many of those details of Asian living that I had forgotten.
First there is the smell. It assaults you. A mixture of diesel exhaust, fried foods being cooked in stalls right on the sidewalk, and people. The smell of thousands of sweating people packed into tiny areas. There is the smell of sewage and standing water. The smell of perfume. The smell of air conditioners.
Then there is the noise. It’s constant. A din of traffic, un-muffled engines, conversations, laughing, haggling, tuk tuk horns, whistles from traffic cops. Ten million people make a noise that is constant and loud. You tune it out after a while, but coming from smaller towns like the Hague or Princeton you would have some difficulty at first.
Then there is the atmosphere. Bangkok is full of energy. People everywhere are trying to do something. Sell something. Buy something. Get somewhere. See something. Eat something. Take pictures. Close a deal. Find the red light district. Whatever.
I spent a week in Bangkok, and I may write about some of the details later, but for now it’s a good just to put down all those details of Asian city life that you forget after being away for a decade.