Bangkok was the first place I visited after I moved to Shanghai, which as you might remember if you read my recent post on the subject, was my first step in cultivating the free lifestyle I now enjoy – you might say Bangkok was the first place I ever visited on my own free will.
The very word “Bangkok” has been synonymous with “freedom” since the first moment I set foot onto its wild streets.
“SkyTrain,” I said to a round motorcycle taxi driver at the city’s Mo Chit bus station nearly five years ago. “Can you take me to the SkyTrain?”
He nodded and motioned me to get onto the back of his motorbike. I’d never even thought to ride one, but a ladyboy I’d met on the bus (one who looked oddly like Kate Gosselin) had mentioned it would be the best way to avoid Bangkok’s nightmarish traffic, and I trusted her. To be frank, I didn’t really even know what a “SkyTrain” was, only that I felt safest riding with a larger driver, whose body I imagined would be like an airbag in the event of an accident – I was almost certain I would die otherwise.
But the moment we flew off into the sea of red tail lights, fluorescent-colored taxi cabs and proper ladies in heels and skirts riding on the backs of motorbikes with both legs to one side or the other, I had never felt so alive.
I arrived in Bangkok two Saturdays ago for my eighth visit (my second via Shanghai) and stepped aboard a SkyTrain vehicle for probably the thousandth time. Many aspects of the experience – the frigidness of the air conditioning, the flamboyance of the advertisements for beauty products, the exuberance in the “voice” of the automated operator – still struck me as exciting, especially when compared to the muted character of China.
And yet as I woke up the next morning, in the hotel where I’ve stayed every time I’ve come to Bangkok on my own dime, all the way back to the first time, I found myself lacking inspiration. Even when I met up with my old friend Pin that evening for dinner in Bangkok’s Chinatown (a part of the city which, in spite of my frequent visits, I hadn’t yet explored properly), there was something off about the way I felt, and not just because my jet lag from crossing the Pacific earlier that week was finally catching up with me.
It was something intangible, but also profound. And it really, really bothered me: Bangkok is my favorite city in the world, or at least I thought it was.
I tend to beat boredom by reverting to routine, so I decided to spend my third day in Bangkok the way I’ve spent no less than half a dozen other days there: Exploring a set sequence of temples, the same one I recommend in my guide to three days in Bangkok.
Although I avoid tourist-infested Rattanakosin island in favor of Thonburi, on the west bank of the Chao Phraya river, my sojourn never fails to remind me of a strange truth: Being in Bangkok calms me.
Even when I’m walking down busy Silom Road, to my left the cacophony of 500 exhaust pipes and car horns, and to my right the buzzing of 10,000 neon signs down each small soi, Bangkok’s chaos is oddly congruent with the chaos inside my head. I surf through the colors, smells and electricity as if I’m on the biggest wave in the ocean.
As I stood at the precipice of the Temple of Dawn while the sun set on my ritualistic day in old Bangkok, and looked out onto the city’s familiar skyline, bathed in the same beautiful twilight that was setting in the very first time I saw it, I felt as if I could float away right then and there.
“I kind of hate Ayutthaya,” Pin reminded me as we drove north toward Thailand’s ancient capital. We’d be heading to his family’s hotel that night to celebrate Loi Krathong, an annual festival whose floating lanterns symbolize letting go of negativity, but he was cynical about our plans for the day.
“Of course, it’s important to my heritage as a Thai,” he continued, his dress-clad chihuahua Lana del Pin in his lap as we drove to meet a group of his mother’s friends. “But the inaccurate way they restored the ruins, the people selling souvenirs inside, the price gouging and the fakeness of it all…well, I guess you have to see it for yourself.”
It was funny because on one hand, I felt like it was simply a (much delayed) rite of passage – I mean, how many foreigners wait until their eighth visit to Thailand to see Ayutthaya?
The other side of it, of course, was that I had seen many other “lost” cities in Asia (Angkor Wat in Cambodia, Prambanan in Indonesia, Anaradhapura in Sri Lanka) and I knew the drill: Smartphone cameras, tour groups and gap year brats wearing baggy elephant pants. Less Tomb Raider, more Disneyland.
But I paused for a moment while walking through Wat Mahathat, and noticed a stone head entwined in some serpentine tree roots, which reminded me of a favorite saying of mine. You never know where you’re going to find your Buddha.
“Put your hands where my hands are,” Pin’s mother said, as she handed off the lantern she was holding to me, “and close your eyes.”
The metal rim seared my hands as the flame inside it burned brighter, but she was slow and deliberate in her instructions, completely apathetic to my fingers’ plight.
“Gather your anger and your sadness, your poor health and your darkest fears,” she continued, “and put them in the front of your mind somewhere.”
Her instructions were easy to follow – I had dealt with all of the above this year, in abundant quantity – but I remained doubtful that the lantern, which seemed to be growing heavier, would ever lift. “How will I know it’s ready?”
She said nothing, leaving me alone in the darkness with my doubt, my insecurity, my fear, my pain, and the ghost of the strange disappointment I felt upon arriving back in Bangkok the previous week.
And suddenly, the very moment I stopped worrying about it, the lantern lifted out of my hands and into the sky – and within seconds it, along with all the negativity I’d been holding onto, was indistinguishable from the vast blackness above me.