Thursday, March 25, 2010

Getting Oriented in Bangkok...pun intended!

There are all different sorts of people in the world, many of whom have no problem existing in the midst of chaos. For the rest of us, it takes some getting used to. I flew for two days, across the U.S., over the ocean to Taiwan and finally into the heart of South East Asia, Bangkok. Not my first time in this sprawling city, but almost ten years removed from the previous visit, I didn't readily remember how emphatically chaotic Thailand's capital is. I say emphatically because more than just a circumstance of its population, weather, commercialism, etc., the collective attitude in Bangkok is certainly on purpose and a point of pride. Exceptionally friendly, fast paced and always, always going. Whatever it is, it never stops.

Culture shock is not the term for what I felt my first few days in Bangkok. I had no plans of sticking around, but there was some visa business to sort out before getting out of the city and so I was effectively stuck for a few days. The size and pace were intimidating in themselves, but I'm no stranger to navigating big cities. My real problem at the moment was utterly unexpected. What am I supposed to do with my time? Sounds like a stupid question. Those of you who have longingly listened to me describe this extended getaway are giving this blog post a collective sideways glance at the moment, I'm sure of it. Read through my earliest post on this site, though. All I've known for the last few years has been endless prep lists and inventory sheets. When you exist solely to bang out task after task for a long period of time, the extreme shift to no obligations can be fun, exciting, relaxing and also supremely frightening. There's an undercurrent of guilt when you feel as though time is being wasted lounging around in a hostel common room, and I'm not talking about the lacy, lilting guilt that white folks feel after watching Avatar in 3D. I'm referring to a persistent buzz that is supposed to be alerting you that SOMETHING important is not getting done. For me...not so easy to turn off. Bangkok is full of things to fill your time with, but most of it involves shopping or touring temples. Shopping is out; I'm on a tight budget and certainly do not want to carry anything extra (remind me to tell you some time about clothing I promptly identified as unnecessary and mailed back to the U.S.). The temples are captivating, but one can only see so many, especially in the midst of intense heat and humidity. I imagine no one will be surprised to read that I found solace in the food.

I've eaten street food almost exclusively since arriving in Thailand. It's cheap, exciting, outstandingly delicious and everywhere. It's difficult to describe why street food is different in Asia than in America. The best I can come up with - to avoid getting all geeky on the subject - is that food carts in America are a dining genre unto themselves. When I was in Portland we spoke often of the food cart "culture," and I would take my out of town guests to the late night carts on Hawthorne merely for the experience. In Asia street food is much more. It's part of the social fabric. Tiny stands line the streets at all hours of the day and night. Most specialize in one or two things. There may or may not be a few tiny (kiddie sized) plastic tables and stools nearby to rest on while eating. Fresh fruits and juices have almost completely edged candy and processed foods out of the dessert market. There is no pomp and circumstance. They are often family affairs - on more than one occasion a young daughter taking my order while her mother prepared the meal, other children taking on tasks in the background. The neighboring vendors exuded respect and good will towards one another, not competition. I don't mean to romanticize the subject, but there is something about what street vendors have to offer here in Asia that will keep me out of a proper restaurant for most likely my whole stay in the region.

By the time I had my travel visa for Vietnam dialed-in and was on my way out of Bangkok on a slow train, I had been able to calm my nerves and drown out the buzzing almost fully. I've got many months ahead of me to see things, do stuff and move around. Free time and even a healthy dose of laziness is all good once in a while and I certainly don't want to regret missing out on what might be my last opportunity to just do nothing for a bit. Better in an exotic locale, right? As I wrote earlier, food always helps me reference a time and place in the past and how I was feeling then. The street food of Bangkok will forever and always be tied to helping me let go of that persistent drive to be working on something and learning to relax a little. Stumbling on Lumphini Park - an oasis in the middle of Bangkok - helped quite a bit too. And that's just the first few days...


  1. nice! Man, sounds like ahellofa time the food must be ridiculous!


  2. dave, i love the blog. can't wait to read more. it sounds like you're doing well. keep it up!