It’s a notebook from a trip to Bangkok. It is a tribute to friendship, to the curiosity of things and of being, to what changes and what is unchanging, to time passing and to the small details that make life more beautiful.
Hot prints (in every sense of the word)
It is curious to return to Thailand, the country where I lived my first unplanned expatriation between 2010 and 2011. The culture shock is so great that one can only get used to it, unaccustomed, rehabilitated with a lot of time and patience. In one day, in one day’s time? It’s a bit like being Winnie the Pooh and suddenly finding yourself teleported into an episode of Dragon ball Z.
When you get out of the plane, take a typical breath of air, the one you’ll probably never forget: the warm, soft, caressing Bangkok air, with a perfectly dosed humidity. It’s the air of my home, I feel like I’m back home.
Outside, I’m just a small farang (foreigner) among others with my luggage, which raises some looks, some mockery, some curious exclamations… Do not take offense what one could not understand! My possibly rusty Thai doesn’t impress many people.
I disembark in Yan Nawa, south-east of the city. It is hard to find the Fahsai Antique Homestay (my guest house) in this interlacing of alleys and streams. I get hailed from everywhere to be brought back on the right way: the people of the street are my guide. The whole neighborhood will have participated, that evening, to bring me safe and sound to my bed. Fahsai, by the river, is a bubble of greenery and calm. Waking up to the song of the birds in the heart of Bangkok, with the howling of the dogs, too! You can curl up on the bed of my teak house, under a mosquito net (delicate and protective lace!). The storm is rising, the monsoon greets me. It washes everything and kindly covers for me the small noises of the neighborhood so that I can finally find a well-deserved rest.
Getting back into the spirit of the times
I took a day off to rest from all the stress I had accumulated before leaving. My jaws, which I couldn’t stop clenching, are kindly starting to relax. The heat here forces you to slow down. The monsoon rain is forcing you to stop.
I wrote a little, and then I went to the Siam Society to listen to my friend’s concert. The strings of Puccini and Mozart transport me to a planet that is not mine. Then the jazzy tunes of Pramoj, a Thai artist, gently reconnect me to real life.
It’s a cold dog in the room. Going into a closed place in Bangkok is a bit like going into a refrigerator. I thank the years in Switzerland that trained me to thermal shock. Someone jokingly told me that Vivaldi wrote the Four Seasons in one day in Switzerland. In fact, he might as well have written them here in Bangkok.
After the concert, I join some of the musicians at a Japanese restaurant. The beer is flowing, the food is endless. I taste some really special things, like beef tongue, omelette with fish eggs, skate! The mood of this dinner is beautiful, simple and humble like those prestigious artists. We are laughing at nothing. I feel privileged by this meeting, by the doors that the journey in my life has opened.
A couple offered to take me back to my neighborhood, to Yan Nawa. They will make sure to put me down as close as possible to my doorstep. They are concerned about my well-being as if I were their responsibility and that touches me very deeply. At midnight, like Cinderella (but with hooting dogs instead of singing birds), I slump under my mosquito net, my head full of music.
Let yourself be guided to learn
A good guide is someone who leaves you full of sparks in your head, who makes you dizzy with passion and curiosity. I like to complement my visits with those snippets of culture that add a layer of meaning to the trip, that allow you to better connect with the country and its people.
I left at 8:00 a.m. for the centre, an hour earlier than the time suggested by Google Maps. Well, I still managed to be late: transportation in Bangkok is absolute madness: you don’t even have to get lost to accumulate overtime.
Luckily, the guide of my Bangkok gastronomic tour waited for me. She took our small group (just five people) around the old Bangkok. She made us discover places and sublime tastes that I would hardly have been able to find on my own despite my knowledge of the country. Addresses that even my Thai friend didn’t know!
There is a variety of cuisines here that can only leave you speechless: the Issan cuisine, from the east, very tangy and pungent – the south, sweeter – the Muslim cuisine, which reminds you of Malaysian, Indonesian flavours – the Chinese-influenced cuisine – the street cuisine and, especially in Bangkok, the royal cuisine. Royal cuisine is a bit like Thai haute cuisine: everything that is best done in the Royal Palace is passed on from generation to generation to the city’s chefs. We feasted from 9:30 to 14:00 and left happily.
I invited the guide to have a coffee with me and we started talking about life, friendship, culture. As the Thais taught me many years ago “same same but different”: I had learned, with them, to tame the parallel dimensions, the subtle paths of thought. To be here is to be brought every day to recognition and it even goes through the taste buds.
In the course of my memory
Maybe I’ve got a little too much on my plate. Because that was without counting the time it takes to move from one neighborhood to another. In Bangkok, every day is a journey, every day is a meeting, and every day is an adventure.
I left my guesthouse in Yan Nawa to go to Samsen, a very quiet and pleasant area, close to the famous Khao San. I go from the outskirts to the beating heart of Bangkok. For my transfer to Samsen (since I like public transport… or rather because I don’t like taxis), I’ll have to take a big trip by shuttle boat. It’s not a great experience: imagine a thousand sardines stuck on something on the water: we don’t really know how it floats. The boat stopped at maybe 10, 12 ports. At each port the tension rises with the number of people who have to get in in addition to those who are already filling the boat well. With my suitcase, it’s hellish. I hang on to what I find to keep the balance. Tourists have laughed at me. A nice lady invited me to sit next to her.
In the evening, I meet my Thai friend and a Taiwanese friend who recently moved to Bangkok. We eat incredible things in the street while remaking the whole world. We compare our cultures, our experiences, we draw up profiles that we break up immediately, we make lists of curiosities, behaviours and it’s fascinating. We change bars regularly and it’s a range of experiences too: from a very small jazzy bar with great musicians, we cross Khao San and stop in a (crazy noisy) Thai bar, to end up in a quiet street café just before sunrise.
Crossing Khao San is a bit of a traumatic experience for me, I feel like I’m meeting old demons. It feels like ghosts have been parked there. It feels like we’re in a ghetto reserved for debauchery. Everywhere people upside down, with someone patting them gently on the back. There are people dancing in bunches, doing strange things; noise, so much noise, music mixing together, girls and men phishing at each other, police riding scooters back and forth. In the middle of it all, the street vendors standing idly by, and I’m amazed.