Fourteen Nights in Bangkok
I’m two weeks into my stay in Bangkok, and still trying to make sense out of how it feels.
It’s a big city, yeah. But it doesn’t feel big and terrifying.
Maybe it’s that it’s my neighborhood. Maybe it’s that Thai folks are just nicer - though significantly less so, here in the city. The weathering of concrete and metal calcifying faces, smiles harder to make - harder to come by.
Maybe it’s that I haven’t been to the rough places yet. The pulse-pounders.
Maybe it’s that I now listen so closely to my intuition (down to which way to turn at every corner) that it’s steering me around the dangers. Trust your body. Everything else will follow.
Maybe it’s that I’m becoming immune to fear.
On the flight here from Chiang Rai, I looked out the window of the airplane, down those thousands of feet, and imagined what it’d be like, if I did go skydiving. For the first time in my life, it felt fine. I’d just jump. Then I’d fly. And most likely, the parachute would work, and it would be an amazing experience. If it didn’t, it didn’t. We all die some day.
Chiang Rai feels like a corner turned, in a lot of ways. My focus, a constant pulse in my mind when I’m out there is be kind. To treat every person I meet like they’re my very best friend. To be generous, honest, and full-hearted. To care. Maybe Bangkok seems like an unlikely spot for a blooming of kindness. One night in Bangkok and all that. A friend told me, “Bangkok is lovely. And hot. And trust no one.” It’s all good advice.
And I don’t entirely trust anyone here. But I do care about them. That difference, somehow is making the Bangkok I meet just human. Not scary, not immense, not overwhelming.
Human. Tired. Trying to make it work.
I saw a Bentley and a Lambroghini today, and I’m not a person who looks at cars. Somebody is clearly getting rich around here, but it’s not that shopkeeper. It’s not the woman with the store full of cheap imported plastics in Chinatown. It’s not pretty much everyone, including me.
And then I get home.
My apartment is an exercise in the world is really fucking complicated. It is a lovely, beautiful, modern space. It has tons of light, is the exact kind of environment where I thrive the most (clean, bright, minimal, at least a few stories off the ground.) It is also in an area of town that hasn’t been developed.
I am ground zero for the gentrification of Bang Rak. And even knowing that, even seeing a handful of short-term tourists wandering down the alley every time I go out, it feels like there aren’t any easy answers.
The people who live here run the same shops they did before this building went in, they can just charge the tourists a bit more. The shops right around me are still packed with locals, there’s a general store 20 meters away that hosts three tremendous 50+ year old men who sit at the entrance every night, shooting the shit.
It still feels like a normal Thai neighborhood. But I don’t know if it’s going to stay that way.
Nothing about traveling is ethically easy. As I’ve noted in the defense of the second menu and why I never barter, there are real costs to good people in letting lots of foreigners with a massive currency advantage come into your town. Even putting aside the motherfuckers who roll in to Khao San Road, shack up at a cheap foreign-owned hostel, and spend their time wasted and hooking up with hookers, there are still issues.
I’m being as conscientious as I can, in these travels. I mitigate my CO2 impacts. I always learn the language. I eat what the locals eat, in the tiniest hole-in-the-walls I can. I try to get to know people, understand them, and share as much of myself as they’re interested in. I always try to leave every person’s life I have interactions with better as a result.
But I am still using roads, sewer systems, buses, trains, and every bit of infrastructure and paying no tax. Lots of people in the U.S. get riled up about “illegal immigrants” using all of the resources. For infrastructural intents, I am an illegal immigrant..
And that’s beyond the cultural imposition. Even when I get a good vibe for a culture, in a shared space I’m still that giant awkward white guy who might be able to understand what we’re saying, and might not. Unless we’re friends, conversations change when I’m around. It’s inavoidable.
I am a force for gentrification, for tourism, for an economy built on the idea that someone else has enough spare money that they’re going to give some to you if you show them a good time. Yes, that feels dirty.
But there, too is light. I come from a country that, from the rest of the world’s perspective, is filled with fat, loud, arrogant assholes. A country that’s almost always had some kind of military interaction with their country. A country that globally, is largely seen as a self-righteous aggressor. A self-appointed policeman with a big gun that nobody asked for. And here I am. As blond and white as they come. Except that I’m not fat. And I’m not loud. And despite too many faux-paus to count, I’m clearly trying really hard to be respectful, and to listen. That is a good thing. As much as they’re teaching me about what it is to be from Thailand or Mexico or wherever I end up next, I’m teaching them what Americans can really be like. Both of us, understanding each other better. Both of us, able to look past nationality, and find a human underneath.
I am dumping money into the local economy. And that is going to result in gentrification. But I’m not giving it to Marriott or Hilton. 80% of it is going to people who run local businesses, for services and goods that the locals need, too.
And I am writing. No small part of what convinces me that the scales are somewhere in the middle is sharing these people and cultures with all of you. Connecting stories and moments we all relate to. Realizing in my life and yours, we’re all in this together.
I don’t have easy answers. At this point, I actually don’t believe easy answers exist. That if any person, when asked a hard problem, doesn’t begin with “it’s complicated”, they’re lying.
I live all over the world. It is complicated. It is beautiful. It does damage and it makes things grow.
It is a lot like life.