Bangkok: The Frenemy City

In honor of the Loy Krathong festival (one of my favorite things from our time in Thailand), a throwback blog post remembering my fraught relationship with Bangkok.

Bangkok, Thailand: November 2010

Bangkok and I have not been friends. I have lived in this country lo these two months, and still we  squabble bitterly. By now it’s the middle of November, and I have run out of anything to say to Bangkok but this:

I hate you. You smell terrible. Your rivers are dirty and full of trash and dead animals. Your streets are dirty and full of trash and dead animals. Your public transit takes advantage of me. It takes my money and a) dumps me on the side of the interstate, b) passes my destination and unapologetically urges me to call a taxi, or c) my favorite, suddenly veers off course into a pitch-black dirt road, pulls into an empty parking lot, and unceremoniously tells me to get off. Your citizens lie to me. They tell me the temple I am going to is closed. They try to herd me into tuktuks. They say that the clothes I am wearing are not nice enough, that the information I’ve heard is not correct. They assume I am ignorant and uninformed and pounce on me like a tiger on a rabbit.

No, Bangkok, we have not been friends, though the potential has always been there. In fact, (and I might have even told you had you given me the opportunity to be nice to you), I thought you looked gorgeous the night we left for Singapore—all draped in light and sparkle against the dark denim sky. That night I looked at you and thought I was incredibly lucky. I thought, yeah, damn right. I am living the dream. But the reality of you spoiled it, with your inflation of what should have been a 50 baht, two hour trip home into a 700 baht, seven hour trip home, two days later.

At that point, dearest Bangkok, I was ready to throw in the towel. I was past caring. I issued forth a great number of “F YOU BKK” in vehement tones. I told David I was done. Never before had I loathed a city with such intensity.

But something between us changed the other night. You were trying harder, and I was trying harder, and suddenly something started to click. I made the journey painlessly from Mahachai to the city center. A kind old man fixed my computer. For free. Your MacDonald’s was open and had a dollar menu (kind readers, don’t judge). A man selling pineapple stopped in the middle of the road to tell me I was beautiful. I found I could get all the way home without worry. And without those petty distractions and all that negative energy, I could suddenly see you as you are.

Right now, your wider boulevards are garlanded in thick strings of white lights. Your trees glow. The floodlights at the feet of your statues throw the purest light onto your marble elephants. And as we crossed the Chao Phraya river—the river I’d so recently denounced at the nastiest river in the world—I could see the colored lights of the Loi Krathong barges twinkling in the murky waters.

Loi Krathong is the festival of lights. It symbolizes the release of all one’s grudges, anger and defilements by the literal release of a krathong, a small boat constructed of banana leaf and flowers, into a river. The offering is made in appeasement of the water goddess, to generate luck (especially in love), and to start life on a better footing. Last Sunday, David and I, and my newfound friend Bangkok celebrated Loi Krathong on the banks of the Chao Phraya. Holding the hand of my lover in mine, I gave the river all of my negative energy, all of my despair, anger, frustration, and irritation. I watched it bob away from me into the wide black water, looked into the sky, where thousands of paper lanterns floated (in celebration of a separate festival, Yi Peng), and said to myself: We’re starting again. I’m starting again.

Hello Bangkok, nice to meet you.