The city is bound by telephone wires and sits, undusted, in Thailand’s central plains. There is something frantic in the air, a tension caught in the knots that loiter above the hubbub below. If I was missing grime while in Singapore, this was certainly the place to go. It’s not any dirtier than other cities, but the people who wear masks even on the train seem fully justified here—the dust lined my lungs and gave me a delightfully grating cough throughout my stay.
Soon after arrival, we hopped our way over to the Chatuchak Weekend Market, twenty-seven acres of vendors packed in a raucous sprawl. The magnitude of this enormous place was both exhilarating and terrifying. After a few hours, I – daunted by the prospect of having to haggle effectively – discovered I had lost all desire to shop, which, if you know me well, is a very rare sensation. Perhaps that’s Chatuchak’s true magic—the power of overwhelming.
Wandering the Chinatown area and stumbling on a few temples helped me begin to understand the essence of Bangkok. It’s colorful – much more so than Singapore – and unrestrained in its frenzy. The BTS is packed with what seems to be more tourists than locals, and every corner houses someone who’d like to sell you something. I wonder how Bangkok’s inhabitants feel about the flourishing tourism industry in their city—whether they feel that their space has been tainted by the overeager fingers and feet that delight simply in how foreign things feel, whether the air tastes different now that tourists are so involved in it. I cannot help but think that a part of them, no matter how inviting, must resent how dependent their livelihoods are on the whims of people like me, people who cannot understand what being Thai or living in Bangkok really is.
Perhaps tourism is a new form of imperialism, continuing the assertion of Western influence and power through the thousands that flood through cities, waving their dollars and pounds instead of rifles and bayonets, consuming culture, then trotting out as quickly as they came in, leaving the landscape no better than it was the last time they left. Ironic how Thailand was the only Southeast Asian country to have evaded European colonialism, yet it cannot flee the much more stealthy grip of Western soft domination. There’s something distinctly uncomfortable about visiting a country where tourism accounts for twice the global average of GDP contribution. These are places that have created and now sell caricatures of themselves to outsiders seeking authenticity.
None of this is to say that Thailand is doing poorly on the economic front; on the contrary, its development is one of the most impressive in the world and further reforms will likely continue. However, it is undeniably difficult to simultaneously appreciate a country for its history and heritage while remaining respectful and supportive of its growth. Too many tourists come to countries like Thailand with an expectation of how things should be, how things should exist to cater to their interests. It’s a shame that economic development seems to be synonymous with society conforming to Western standards and shifting the role of its cultural emblems to become mere revenue generators.
Even temples cannot fully escape this. Thailand, influenced heavily by Buddhism in both society and politics, is covered with temples, large and imposing in grandeur or otherwise. Visiting these temples for an entire day created mixed feelings similar to those I felt when in European cathedrals—I admired the architecture and spiritual significance of these structures while feeling decidedly out of place in what was originally meant to be a space for worship. This lack of connection with the deeply intimate atmosphere that religious spaces sustain combined with the flagrant commercializing of the surroundings caused quite some discomfort.
One of the highlights of my Bangkok experience was the Calypso Cabaret, self-endorsed as “the best cabaret show in Bangkok.” As a drag enthusiast, I was beyond excited to experience the infamous Thai ladyboy show. Calypso did not disappoint, playing up the campiness and dramatics of drag that I love and distorting gender boundaries, featuring numbers as pointed as “Free Your Mind,” a direct criticism of violent protesters of queer culture. Although the Cabaret did not feature as many acrobatics as American drag tends to showcase – very few jump splits and death drops – it exhibited the “fishiness” of its performers, that is, the sheer womanliness of the women in the show. Unlike Western drag, Calypso also had performers in male roles, but the various numbers in the show included characters all along the gender spectrum. The beauty of Calypso teaches an important lesson that gender itself is a performance, a social construction that dictates how individuals of certain habits should be categorized.
Thailand, vibrant and perpetually busy, is also a country in mourning. In October 2016, their longest-reigning monarch died at age 88, and the country plunged into a period of grieving. Four months later, Bangkok is still drenched in black and images of the late king. Seeing this man’s face so many times has allowed me to remember it better than those of some of my dearest friends. The somber attitude Thais maintain is steadfast, and the grieving period will likely last at least a year. Bangkok and its attractions remain open, but not without constant reminders that their country is gearing up to experience potentially life-changing political turnover.
Our experience in Thailand’s capital city was full of delicious cuisine and scam attempts. I was physically twisted in ways I haven’t been in a while during a traditional Thai massage (who knew my stubby toes could crack?) and forced to see the world with a critical eye. Absorbing the dust in the streets, indignant honks from taxis, and endless places begging me to spend money, I left Bangkok with questions bigger than whether a wooden elephant should cost twenty US dollars. After accidentally happening on an aging Thai pop star’s concert and getting stabbed in the rear by a mysterious insect in Lumphini Park, I will treasure the four days I had in Bangkok, exploring its multifaceted, emotional, and proud identity.
Some suggestions – food and otherwise – for those of you planning to visit Bangkok:
Baan Khanitha: delicious Thai food, pleasant atmosphere
Baan Thatien Cafe: highly recommended, ideal location
Cabbages and Condoms: popular Thai restaurant advocating sexual health (a serious issue in Thailand)
Museum of Contemporary Art: features many regional artists, several floors of various themes, not too crowded
Lavana Bangkok: decently priced massage, clean and reputable
This is part of a collection of writing about my time in Singapore (and surrounding countries). For visual documentation of my adventures here, follow me on Instagram @mayisrad.