For seven days Bangkok smells of water and street dust
Yes, I know, it is difficult to explain how dust smells, especially when you can’t see it on the perfectly cleaned streets. But maybe you know this feeling – the moment when the first drops of summer rain touch the hot body of the street – your nostrils and lungs became full with this rich, deep, thick aroma of wet soil, wet cement, wet asphalt and you want to drink it in, to smell it more and more.
For seven days – from the early morning to the late evening, until sleep comes, I feast on this.
It is humid
It is hot. Actually very hot and this is not the hottest season. Only two hours flight past the line of Equator, direction North, but North or South doesn’t matter here, every closed place – shop foyer, lobby, passage, restaurant, even the Skytrain, is air-conditioned, and from the humid heat outside, I literally dive into the sobering coldness inside.
And the opposite – every time when I went out of the hotel, where the powerful air-conditioning keeps the temperature near zero centigrade, the first feeling is pleasure. Tingling from the artificial cold, my skin is thankful to enjoy the warmth. For the first few minutes. After that I am already dreaming about the same cool air I just escaped from.
I am trying to climb the least amount stairs that is possible and I have refused to walk faster than a leisurely stroll from the first day. The air is hot and humid. The food is hot and chili, the colours are hot and spicy – with these special bright colours which I will never see in my native Europe with her well known, homey, soft, but somehow cold light.
But anyone who is not brave enough to explore the streets, will lose forever the chance to feel the real Bangkok. Strange, sometimes I have felt more in danger in the city in which I was born, than I did here. I was shocked when a man stopped us asking where we are going. He honestly said that he is working for a big souvenir shop and the owners pay him to guide clients there. And then he continued: “It is cheaper, you will see. And the things are made in Thailand, not somewhere else. It is not necessary to buy, just take a look. And if the tuk-tuk driver wants more than 150 baht from you, do not agree – they are more expensive than the taxies”.
We decided to walk
When you are in an unknown place, it is stupid to have only one target. You can miss real miracles only because of being lazy or only travelling in a vehicle.
We had been walking for around 15 minutes, when I saw one big colourful shop…
“This one is very expensive, madam”, a man said, “Maybe you are looking for…”, and we heard the name of the place we were trying to find.
My husband Clem loves to talk with people in the streets. Our new friend was an engineer with an office next to the souvenir shop. He was going to work today. “Today? But it is Sunday!”, I was surprised.
“The Work does not wait”, he said. “And my wife is a shopping maniac. I need to make money!”. Saying this he sounded somehow proud – like a man, who can satisfy his wife’s whims. “Unfortunately, she is not in Bangkok today, otherwise she will show your wife the best shops in the city!”, he said to Clem.
His smile was happy – a man, who cares about his family and keeps his wife happy too, supporting her hobby. Oh, I was happy to – if his wife was in Bangkok, it would be very difficult to resist the “best shopping” temptation!
In the end of the story I have to tell you, that we found the shop and it was on three levels, full wof great souvenirs with affordable prices. Not like in Bali: “1000 dollars, madam, but only for you 700!”. On the way back I couldn’t resist and took a look in the first shop – yes, the prices were two and three times higher and the wooden souvenirs were not even made from wood, but of very bad quality mouldings from a kind of resin.
Thai people are generous
Generous with their smiles, generous with their help. If you ask someone directions, he will show you and will walk a bit with you – to be sure you will not make a mistake. There are not many things Thai people are intolerant of, but if you say something insulting about the king, even as a joke, this can land you in jail.
Bangkok was build in 1782
…when king Rama I moved it from Thon Buri (on the other side of the river), to be sure that the city would be protected from Burmese attacks. Everyone who has the good fortune to see the buildings on Ratanakosin Island, will be speechless because of all the work, passion, fantasy and patience displayed in the decorations. And because of the gold.
Every Thai citizen, at least once in his life, makes a donation of pure gold for one of the temples. Many people do this every year. You can buy the gold in small leaves – depending on how much you can afford. And even the small amounts are priceless – because people are doing this with pure souls from the goodness of their hearts.
In this part of the world when the accepted explanation for success is good karma, everyone respects rich people, because they created their good karma in their previous lives. But here there is no shame in being poor either. Nobody judges you. Everyone is accepted with his good and bad sides, of course, provided he keeps some essential rules.
The first and more important rule is to respect the Royal family and other people. The idea of respect is visible in the signs: “Buddha is not for sale and is not for decoration! Respect Buddha!”. Buying statues of Buddha will not see you sent to jail, but you will lose the respect of others. And immediately will feel the difference in this society where respect is everything.
Bangkok means “river village surrounded by wild olives”. “Bang” is a “small village next to the river”, “kok” is a “wild olive”. Bangkok is a shortened version of the real name of the city which takes up two complete lines in the National Geographic guide and is very difficult, almost impossible to pronounce. I love the name which Thai people use – “City of angels”.
I love the way people speak English here. The simple “Thank you” sounds like “thankyyouuuu” with three different intonations in the end. The language is tonal and one tone lower or higher can change the meaning of the word. My name sounds like “Vyyra” with two different accents in each y and soft moving up in the end. “Madam Rooo” I love! Clem’s name was easy for them though usually rendered as “Mr Clem” – respect again.
The electric wires. They are everywhere. Stretched over the streets they look like giant veins, where the city’s blood flows. They are passing along the fences and the tree branches, twisting around electric lamp posts, around billboards, balconies, low roofs and TV antennas. They are not ugly! Actually they create a feeling about strong life and vitality. Everything feels connected across this huge city – visibly connected end to end by a maze of intimately entwined wires and cables. Maybe one day the rulers of the city will decide to hide the wires underground, but on this day Bangkok will lose a big part of its amazing atmosphere.
Philosophically said, Bangkok is a real tangle of possibilities and choices
This is а multi level city.
It looks chaotic, but this is exactly what makes it so alive. Interesting things are always popping up in front of my eyes: Oh, I will start hanging the washing like the Thai women – on coat hangers, to minimise the need for ironing… What about this wonderful garden on the roof! And another one! And another one! Almost all small terraces are converted into minature jungles with flowers and real trees. Hot and humid – exactly what the plants love! And, clearly, Thai people love plants too.
In the small neighbourhoods, nobody seems to care about painting the walls anew – the humidity literally eats the colours off the plaster, but it is not ugly – it is colourful still and just not ready for the next round of painting.
And boats! Thousands of boats! Tourist boats, hotel boats, private, “long”, ordinary boats, small ships, water expresses, floating restaurants and boats which offer long trips around the city’s river canals. Some are full of fruits and slow, some are fast and cause big waves, which make the “long boats” slap heavily into the water with a loud clapping noise, like they will break in half and the boatmen stop their giant space scavenger looking engines and wait until the water becomes calm again.
We are on a long boat and the waves are splashing over the gunwale, my face is wet, my dress is wet, and this makes me feel cooler. The “climate” on the river is cooler – you can feel the difference immediately – just by stepping onto the boat.
The River. When I am in the middle, I clearly feel the power, which made her a natural border against the Burmese. I more clearly and acutely feel I can’t swim.
Mighty, exciting, deep, with waters with thick brown-green colour, absolutely not transparent, dragging flowers, palm leaves, and coconuts. Full with fish. Many times I see men with fish lines and hooks sitting next to the water. I would be a bit suspicious to try what they caught, but for sure their kids will enjoy it tonight.
Such tasty things! And so hot! The classic Thai meal includes a big pile of the hottest chilli peppers. The ones whose taste you feel in the first half second only, and after that start coughing, trying to breathe. But “When you’re in Rome, do as the Romans”. It is stupid to go to the other side of the world and to continue having dinner in McDonalds, in Italian or French restaurants. The food is part of the culture – if you want to understand the culture, you need to try the food.
Find a restaurant, which offers classic Thai food, and if you are not fans of chilli, ask! Ask about everything. Otherwise in front of you will appear numerous dishes with great looking food with amazing aromas, all of which will be impossible to eat. This happened to me in the first night – the waiter said: “This is hot, and this is light hot, this is soft.” The “soft hot” brought tears into my eyes and fire into my mouth… But by the third day I was able to finish all the soft meal, by the fourth – the light chilli meal, and today I can eat almost everything. I still can’t understand the rule to have hot drinks and hot chilli meals in such a hot climate – it doesn’t work on me and I am burning, burning… But even then the feeling is amazing! Because Thai food is bright and colourful not only in its taste. It looks sumptuous, bright and colourful on the plate. And this is part of the pleasure of being in this bright and colourful place on Earth, isn’t it?
I love this city!