City of Contrasts

Even just within the 5 days I’ve spent in Bangkok, I’ve seen so many different facets of this city. I’ve dined with a girl who spends all her time at malls and has a dad who shoots movies in Dubai. I’ve explored shopping malls (Siam Paragon, especially) targeted at the privileged, with gourmet food courts and McLarens parked in shiny exhibits on the fifth floor. But I’ve also wandered off into cramped, dusty side-streets, with crippled and blind folk shaking tin cups on the corner. Shacks fashioned from metal scraps teeter on the banks of the polluted river. In fact, most of the city reflects a country steeped in poverty and inequality.

Another interesting contrast I’ve noticed is that between the religious and the irreverent. Thailand is a Buddhist country, where one is expected to dress modestly and obey large warning signs advising tourists not to buy Buddha heads as decorations. Temples are a fixture in any itinerary; wandering through these elaborate structures, my jaw agape, has provided valuable insight into the ancient customs and beliefs that infuse the Thai way of life. The culture of reverential respect extends beyond religious deference - today, Catherine, Zhong and I wandered into a hospital/university with an enormous picture of the Thai king stretched across a building, and a monument beside which people were kneeling and praying.

And yet, Thailand maintains an infamy that, I daresay, nobody would call pious. The city seems to wake up at night and one can enter into any manner of crazed debauchery possible. From the Patpong red light district to neon dildoes sold at streetside markets right beside Buddha miniatures, Thailand’s weird open-but-also-repressed impropriety is what makes it such an infamous destination for wacky stag parties and unforgettable nights out. Even simple things such as the number of transgender people I see around points to a country where people seem more free in their sexuality. However, sex tourism and trafficking are gigantic problems here. The thriving prostitution industry is actually only semi-legal and badly regulated, and  worryingly, those girls are often in highly sketchy and dangerous situations that both the mass media and tourists choose to overlook for the sake of cheap entertainment.

Finally, simply getting slightly lost will highlight the difference between “touristy” Bangkok and the locals' actual everyday lives. I experienced the peak of such agony at Grand Palace, where I paid 500 THB to bake in 36 degree heat and be assaulted by swarms of people waving iPads, and street vendors conducting trade at excessive decibels, charging inflated prices for pomegranate juice and river cruises. In some ways this is hypocritical because the obvious fact is, I am a tourist too. But the vibe and claustrophobia of tourist traps are hard to bear. Yet in the multiple times that we have thrown away the figurative map (whether accidentally or on purpose) and meandered around the city, we have glimpsed far more valuable things for free. We have wandered through cramped sidewalk markets selling unfamiliar ingredients, tempted by stalls serving up deliciously fresh salads, noodle soups and desserts. Even just taking the water taxi (a fancy name for a public boat) and getting completely lost up the river showed us a dustier, more industrial, more residential facet of Bangkok. Wherever you are and wherever you’re heading, make it a point to get lost.