When I was a boy our vacations were spent in the same places. Winters skiing in the Alps of France, summers on the beaches of the South of France. It was home, it was routine. It was what we knew. Bangkok living, let alone a visit, wasn’t even on the map.
Like the chisel of time drawing lines on a face, the college years reshaped this habit to a certain extent. I spent more time traveling to other places, breaking old traditions, making new ones. But I wanted more. Much more.
Europe felt like a drug, but a weakening one.
The high wasn’t so high anymore, and the low dipped further after every trip. I thought a move to the U.S. would change that and it did, but only for a while. Save for subtle cultural differences, I was still surrounded by a heavily Western, predominantly white culture. And the temperate climate was no different.
I wanted to lose myself somewhere and become someone else.
Better yet, I wanted to become no one.
Bangkok living became more and more appealing.
Fast forward a decade.
After numerous promotions and opportunities, I donned my shorts and flip flops and chose the beaten path away from everything that I knew. Away from comfort. You may call me the foolish one to turn my back on a solid career.
But I remember it well, the day I arrived in Bangkok, Thailand, not knowing what to expect. And for what? To get an English-teaching certificate. I had really thought long and hard about life in Thailand, and Bangkok living especially appealed to me.
I figured, a year abroad wouldn’t hurt, would it?
A year to do something completely out of the ordinary. To be no one in a new land and reinvent myself, where no executive decisions needed to be made. Where no reports needed to be delivered. Where no corporate emails about earnings and objectives needed to be read.
It was all behind me the day I stepped off of the plane and into the fortress-like glass structure of Suvarnabhumi International Airport. The time was almost midnight so I took a taxi to a hostel where the owner, who spoke a mix of English and sign language, waied me with the traditional Thai greeting and told me to go visit the Patpong night market nearby.
I skipped the description of the trip from the airport to the hostel intentionally, because I was in such shock that the half hour taxi ride was lost behind waves of doubt and disbelief. Besides, at first, the skyline looked no different than any major city I had visited. It felt as if, in my attempt to visit somewhere far and different, I landed right back in Europe.
But how mistaken I was, especially when I walked the steamy streets of Silom towards the Patpong district. The roads and alleys looked mysteriously foreign and sometimes downright dirty. Massage parlors and their women, sitting outside, called out: “Massaaaage, siiiiir.”
Tuk tuk drivers relentlessly approached and asked if I needed a ride.
Merchant stalls on the side of the street called out to me, trying to sell me foods which would have smelled good were it not for the strong smell of diesel fumes wafting through the air, marrying with the stinging smell of chili and oil.
Other stalls flaunted cheap designer knock offs, their owners appraising my size and looking at their merchandise for possible fits, all the while saying “special for you siiiiiir.”
I can’t forget that elongated word. Siiiir.
I had no idea what Patpong was until I got there. It was a mass of confused lights which beckoned the unsuspecting soul to nothing other than one of Bangkok’s red-light district.
Strangely enough, all types of foreigners walked by; couples, singles, even families with children in tow. Merchants set up stalls in the middle of the street which sold all sorts of replicas from watches to handbags. And touts kept tugging at my sleeve and mentioning the words “ping pong” as they thrust a menu of impossibly perverse sexual feats before me (the content of which I will leave to your imagination).
The further I negotiated my way down Patpong,
the louder the music got, the more electric the signage became, until, finally, I reached a parallel street where lay the gay district. Unlike the taboo this may carry in the West, a country as far removed as Thailand possesses one of the most accepting people.
The openness stunned me. What with all of our Western democracy and equality, in Thailand men can choose to become women and are constitutionally recognized and respected as a third gender.
We are nowhere near that, and it reminded me of how advanced yet backwards we still are.
Two hours in Bangkok is all it took for me to know I had found a place far different than any place I’d ever laid eyes on. Barely off of a twenty-plus hour plane ride, I was already on a wild roller coaster through a bustling metropolis of car horns, pollution, and the strangest mix of curious locals and wandering foreigners, some whom lived long-term in Bangkok.
Two hours into a masquerade, where faces hide their pasts beneath their smiles. This is the land of smiles after all, isn’t it? Tucked away in the Far East where no one knows who you are. Where you can wander and be whomever you choose to be, and live life as you’ve always dreamed it to be.
Away from the doles of who you once were,
into the throes of the wilderness there.