“Teddy: By the way, do you have any idea where my finger is?
Stu: Yeah, we gave it to a drug dealing monkey.
Stu: Yeah! Right? Fucking Bangkok!”
Hangover II is blazing away on TV as I write this. I have watched this movie an unhealthy number of times, and don’t even like it that much. Yet I watch it every time it comes on TV because it brings back old memories. This movie released few days before my first trip to Thailand, four years ago, and I remember sitting in the cinema hall, amidst people who were laughing their balls off, with a horrified look on my face, thinking..
“I am going to get killed in Bangkok!”
The movie is not kind to the wonderful city, but then that’s what the script demanded. A hostile and crazy city.
When I came back home after spending two weeks in Thailand, I was in complete awe of the country. Lovely beaches, friendly people, delicious food, awesome bars, great music scene, and of course, Muay Thai.
It was Narnia!
And then I went to Thailand again… and again.. and again.. and again.
About two weeks back, when I went back there on my way to Myanmar, I realised that Bangkok didn’t feel foreign anymore. You know, the feeling of nervousness and excitement when you are about to enter a foreign country. It just wasn’t there.
I knew exactly how to get to the city from the airport, which subway station to get off at and how to reach my hostel from there. Instead of peeking out of the windows of the train to catch glimpses of the city outside, I was playing Angry Birds on my cell phone the whole time. When it was time for lunch, I knew exactly where I wanted to go and what I wanted to order. Siam Paragon Food Hall and a bowl of black rice and coconut milk.
I saw first timers haggling with taxi and tuk tuk drivers, carrying their backpacks on the front like a kangaroo, getting suits made from shops that advertise “3 suits for $100” and felt that they either did not know much about the city, or whatever they do know was from Hangover II.
I spent about a week in the city, and since over the years I had been to most of the famous landmarks, I had a lot of time in my hands. I spent my days getting off at random stations and just walking through the residential neighbourhoods, seeing kids going to school, and adults heading off to work. I would walk till the signboards on the shops, went from English to Bi-lingual (Thai and English) to only Thai. Same with the food menus in small eateries. The touristy t-shirt and souvenir shops gave way to busy garages, furniture and vegetable shops. I passed schools that were buzzing with children and quiet tense looking offices.
I would sit for hours at small restaurants, taste different soups and curries, watch Thailand perform at the Asian Games and cheer them on with the locals. I would wander into small temples which are nowhere on the tourist map but are just as beautiful as the ones that are. It felt awesome because this was nothing like the Bangkok I had seen previously. I had found normalcy in the “crazy” city. For the first time, I felt I was actually experiencing Bangkok.
(It is a bit sad when most people back home think of Bangkok and the first thing that comes to their mind is the naughty massages and Go-Go bars. They make Bangkok sound so cheap and sleazy. Ask yourself this, if someone is landing in an interesting city and all he can think about are those massages and bars, isn’t he the one who is sleazy?)
Revisiting certain places, I realised a lot has changed since my first visit four years ago. The rusty tuk tuk that was hung up at the entrance of Khao San Road is gone.
The cheap little hotel in which I passed out after drinking one Chang too many, has tripled its rates and has a swimming pool now.
Entry into Wat Pho now costs 100 Bahts.
In the evening, I would find myself on the banks of the Chao Phraya River, watching the Temple of Dawn light up and the sky change shades as the sun sets.
For some fun, I would then stroll over to the bars of Khao San Road, do some people watching, try out different dishes and ofcourse, have a lot of Chang.
I would stay there till I look at my watch and go, “Fuck, it’s late!”. Then hire a moto taxi back to my hostel. We will zoom through the famous Chinatown market, where most of the roadside shops would be closing up.
If you think Bangkok is beautiful during the day, you should see it late in the night when the traffic is less, there are lesser people on the streets and the weather is cool.
The day after Dusshera, the busy road leading up to the Hindu temple close to my hostel was cordoned off, and decorated with flower garlands. Idols of Lord Shiva, Maa Durga, Lord Ganesha were installed on colourful stages and devotional Hindi music started playing on speakers that seemed to be running on steroids. By evening the whole road was filled with a sea of people.
Imagine the crowd of Delhi’s famous Kashmere Gate puja on Ashtami night when a singer from a Bengali reality show shows up. Then multiply it by ten times. It was that crazy!
They were doing their own version of Indian classical dance and dhunuchi naach. Their rituals were a lot different from what we have back home but I guess all that doesn’t really matter because at the end of the day, it is all about the faith.
And then suddenly, everyone started smashing coconuts on the road. Thousands and thousands of them. Coconut shells were flying everywhere. They would stop for a breather and regroup when a thin lady in a yellow uniform blew her whistle.
“One coconut is one wish” I overheard, as an old man dragged a bucketful of coconuts and joined the crowd.
Then she will blow it for the second time, and it will start all over again. It was total madness and it went on till late in the night.
And amidst all the coconut smashing, lights, prayers, music, crowd, Bangkok did not stop being Bangkok. The massage parlours along the road were enjoying peak business. Bars were having their happy hours. The night market across the road was buzzing with people. It was business as usual for the Go-Go bars of Patpong, a block away.
(I am guessing about the Go-Go bars. I never ever go there.)
And I don’t even know why they were celebrating one day after Dussehra.
Or how the road was sparklingly clean by the next morning
Or what made papaya salad taste so damn good when papaya on its own tastes like monkey crap.
But then, I realise if I had the answers to every “what”, “how”, and “why”, Bangkok would be a lot less interesting and I would not visit it every year.