Nothing really surprises me anymore in Bangkok, at least in the sense that I know the city well enough to predict, or least anticipate, its day-to-day quirks, its endearing moments of absurdity, its profound ability to somehow always outdo itself in ways large and small.
A rail-thin runner, all bushy mustache and sinewy muscle, doing laps at Lumpini Park while dragging a tire from a rope tied around his waist. Streams of motorbikers eluding traffic jams by taking a shortcut on the pedestrian sidewalk as if yellow dotted driving lanes were painted down the middle. Girls working at product stands in grocery stores and shopping malls chattering into a microphone endlessly, breathlessly, like one of those talking dolls with a pullstring in their back, often speaking to an audience of none. Food vendors like armies of ants: underneath highway overpasses, outside restaurant and convenience stores, in front of five-star hotels. Everywhere.
These things don’t surprise me, which isn’t to say they’ve faded into a droll background of daily life or lost their hypnotic power of seduction; if anything, the allure has been magnified. With each passing day, the rhythm of this place, its character, its specific drumbeat of humanity becomes more and more a part of my life’s fabric, and less of a foreign entity to be photographed and catalogued and separated. That jarring newness of surprise I felt during my earliest associations with the city has simply matured into something else entirely. What was exotic is now everyday; what was once-in-a-lifetime is now Saturday morning.
This is not a bad thing.
My adventure in Bangkok is seen from a different, more informed perspective than it was 5 years or 5 weeks ago, but with no less sense of wonder. Still, as with anywhere we love and return to, while an appreciation for the places and its people can deepen, and a more nuanced appreciation can take root, the intoxication of that first experience, that first fateful introduction that grabbed you and wormed its way inside you, can never fully be recreated. Oh, you can remember it, write about it, talk about it, but when you return… you’re returning, not discovering. That’s okay, that’s just life, equal parts mirthful and melancholic.
One man’s return can be another’s discovery, of course. My fiance and I spent the past week walking her brother/my friend through our version of Bangkok’s Greatest Hits. It was his first time in Bangkok–first time in Asia, actually–and not knowing what to expect, he left yesterday with exceeded expectations.
Boat rides down Khlong Saen Saeb, cooking class with the legendary May Kaidee, drinking and dancing during a particularly wild night at Tawandang German Brewery, climbing to the top of Wat Arun, sipping cocktails on the outdoor deck at Centara Grand’s rooftop Red Sky Bar, gorging at favorite restaurants like Jae On, Din Tai Fung, Yaki-Ten, screaming “knee! knee!” during the fourth round of the main event at Lumpinee Stadium’s muy thai boxing night.
We showed him a good time, and it was fun going from one favorite haunt to another, and sharing those sides of the city we love most. On a deeper level, though, it was personally gratifying to moonlight through the newness of his first Bangkok encounters, and in a way to be reminded what it was like to be surprised on levels I once was too.
Tawandang German Brewery photo © Brian Spencer