sin and saffron robes: three weeks in Bangkok

Bangkok in the rain smells like cigarette smoke and wet earth. It is a city that I do not have the words to describe – not in English, anyway. If I did have to pick a descriptor, it would be alive. Bangkok is alive – in the constant thunderous growl of the motorbike taxis; in the soft clink of plastic spoon against ceramic bowl, the pregnant pause as the uncle bends his head to slurp the last of his noodles from the street stall; in the smell of the pork as it fries over grills on either side of the road, at any time of the day. Bangkok is a city that breathes life, excitement, possibility. It is a city that is meant to be experienced with every sense you possess.

I won’t lie. I came into Bangkok with some preconceived notions. I had pictured for myself the Bangkok that Hollywood pushes – the city of saints and sinners, hedonism at every turn, drugs, sex and debauchery ruling the streets. And that is a part of Bangkok. I walk home past Patpong, the notorious red light district, every day. I’ve had men push cards against my face as I walk away, saying “ping pong show?” and “beer for 100 baht” in the same breath, women and beer both equally and easily commodified here. I’ve spent blurry nights in bars that do not shut down till the sun comes up. I’ve walked the length of the famously infamous Khao San Road, huffing laughing gas out of party balloons like every other backpacker there, and in one night met travellers from Shanghai to Sweden and talked about everything from the Bundesliga to the sex trade. Bangkok is a great place to party, but if that were all it was, all it is seen to be, then it would be doing this incredible, exciting city an unbearable injustice.

Bangkok to me is the quiet calm of the city as it wakes up at 5 a.m, the monks in their saffron robes emerging from the temples for their morning alms. Bangkok is the brief heart-stopping terror of having a rat run over my feet on my way back home after work, the poetry of bodies pushed up against each other, no room to move, on the BTS towards Siam at rush hour. Bangkok is the half Nepali/half Burmese bartender with the impossible jawline and the penchant towards neon singlets who tells me he doesn’t drink and hugs me before he bills me for my drinks. Bangkok is the aunty on the side of my road who gives me a smile with my change as I sit and eat fried rice next to her, neither of us speaking.

I’ve never been in a city that makes me feel so alive. ขอขอบคุณ, for everything, Bangkok.