It was January 5th, 2022, and my plans to go to Murwillumbah were definitely a no go. There was simply too much Covid around and my aunt and uncle were just too old to take the risk. But uni break was more than half over and the travel sirens were singing to me and they were singing hard.
Every morning around 8am as I wheeled the first disabled person into the shower, I began to dream of far away lands. Not places with white sands, cold beers and pretty meter maids on roller skates. No. Something a little more exotic than that. A place where the is heat intense, but the sun is soft; where the people are soft, but they are strong and their life is hard; where the fact that you are, is more important than what you do; and where the police wear 45 calibre pistols on their hips and beauty is a public virtue.
To say that Bangkok is a city of contrasts – as the travel brochures do – is an understatement. Colourful luxury hotels stand like Japanese anime warriors above the dirty low-rise of the working poor. Teenagers from middle-class families study with their pals in coffee shops a few yards away from old women who spread their wares on the foot path. Rain forest trees grow in empty lots on the edges of the canals which stink like open drains – because they are open drains. And where, as you leave your hotel just before sunrise the heat embraces you like an electric blanket. For the first time traveller the effect is overwhelming. Or it was for me.
When I left my hotel that morning three years ago in search of sim card that worked, I ran head long into third world. The hotel was nestle at the end of a narrow concrete laneway with tropical trees that hung over besser block walls on either side. Lone helmetless motor cyclists bounced their way up and down making deliveries, and tiny squirrels ran along the power lines. The squirrels were as sure footed as rats and covered in thick fur so that I wondered how they coped in the heat.
At the end of the lane I came to a main road where traffic flowed like two flooded rivers running side by side in opposite directions. I had heard that there were effectively no road rules in some countries, but I wasn’t prepared for the sheer force of it. Leaning trucks, belching buses, taxis, tuk-tuks, and motor cycles carrying small families tore along at 80 kilometers an hour observing no lanes or any rules. It was terrifying. I literally saw one motor cycle with a man, a small girl in front of him and a slightly older boy standing on the seat beind holding loosely on to his father shoulders as they weaved in and out of traffic. 22 thousand or so people die on Thai roads every year. The only country more dangerous to drive in than Thailand is Lybia.
I spotted a 7-Eleven on the other side of the road, walked 50 meters to a pedestrian cross out of habit and ran across like a cat. I made a mental note to dig out my medical travel insurance.
The short Thai woman behind the counter was curt but sold me a sim card for 180 Baht – 8 Australian dollars. I installed it but nothing happened. When I woke up in the hotel that morning I discovered two things; that my Australian sim card didn’t work in a Thailand, and that without a mobile phone I was blind and mute. I couldn’t access google maps to find my way around, and I couldn’t use google translator to communicate with the locals. In a city of 12 million people who didn’t give a dam whether I lived or died this was very unsettling. I did finally figure out after a couple of days – such was the degree of my digital ignorance – that I had to pay to top up my account.
I continued on my way.
All the buildings were stained grey with tropical fungus, and black spaghetti wiring hung everywhere in thick clumps from old telegraph poles. Everything seemed to be covered in a film of pollution, but the real shock was the people.
Their faces were tough. It was obvious that many of them made their living on the street and that the street was a hot and difficult place to live. I tripped on a crack in the footpath and gave a “silly old me” look to two young women coming the other way. Their return expressions were glacial, and in that moment, I felt like the stereotypical American frat boy on holiday in poverty-stricken Mexico; over dressed, over paid and completely irrelevant. But I was too far out of my comfort zone to care. I was high as a kite on the experience.
I met a young Canadian guy on the street and we struck up a conversation. He gave me two pieces of advice. The culture shock going home was worse than that coming to Thailand, and don’t get drunk.
The hotel was an education in itself. I arrived at in Bangkok at 3am and booked in at short notice not knowing what I was getting. It was old by Bangkok standards – probably built in the 50’s – but dignified and bizarrely anachronistic. Red carpet ran down the outside stairs, the foyer floor was old polished marble, and a doorman slid to a halt and smiled as he opened the glass doors. There were pictures of king Rama IX in full military regalia and classical Greek statues everywhere. I discovered a darkened dance hall – later – which echoed with past glories.
My room was on the 5th floor and smelt of old carpet and air freshener. Outside a dirty window an ancient air-conditioning unit laboured to keep the tropical heat at bay. After I unpacked my gear I hung out of the window and stared at the skyscrapers which glowed gently in the soft tropical darkness.
I have a bunch of other memories which are etched deep in my mind. A Buddhist monk put his hand on my elbow from behind as he walked past. A blind 15-year-old girl sang for money into a tiny amplifier on Sukhumvit Road with a voice of great sweetness – she was by herself. And then there was drinking coffee outside a cafe in the early morning watching the monks say prayers over kneeling women who gave them food from their street stalls.
The aesthetic sense of Thai culture is exquisite. The traditional dress of Thai women accentuates a beauty native to that part of the world. The manners of the people have a gracious feminine quality which is irresistible and draws tens of millions of tourists every year. But there is another contrast. The military has a high profile. You don’t have to walk far in Bangkok to find soldiers. The striking beauty of the culture is juxtaposed with blatant machismo. Just because Thailand is called the land of smiles – a thoroughly deserved epithet – doesn’t mean they have joined the West in outlawing masculinity. I was waved away by a soldier while taking photographs of what I thought was an old zoo – it wasn’t. The imperiousness and veiled threat in his hand gestures were unmistakable. I put my mobile phone in my pocket with an exaggerated movement and shrugged my shoulders as if to say; Sorry, I’m just a stupid tourist. I saw the same soldier come smartly too attention a few minutes later as a senior officer approached him. The history of Southeast Asia is one of ether powerful monarchy or battling warlords, so this state of affairs shouldn’t be surprising.
Unlike burly Australian coppers, Thai police are whip thin and give off a very strong don’t mess with me vibe. It was only in 2003 that Thai police were killing drug dealers in accordance Prime Minister Shinawatra’s war on drugs. It is estimated that 2800 drug dealers died when they attempted to “fight back” in police custody.
I was only in Bangkok for three weeks, but I discovered that my friend from Canada was on the money. When I returned to Australia two things stood out. The incredible amount of space we have in this country. Australia is enormous and it is mostly empty. The second is how separate people are from each other here. It is very subtle but blatantly obvious at the same time. It struck me as I was standing on the taxi rank at Central Station in Sydney. Everyone was living in their own little world with little or no connection to the human beings around them unless you count survival as a common interest. It was like looking at a group of shop mannequins. Noone seemed to have any connection with anyone else.
It took me a while to formulate the cultural difference between Thailand and Australia – as I experienced it. In Thailand they have economic and political insecurity, but the emotional security which comes from being with kind. In Australia we have the opposite.
But now I’m here and not there, and the sirens are singing to me every day. They don’t care about the Covid virus or border closures. You will return one day, they sing, you will return one day.