Cities like people develop reputations. Whether they are deserved or not they spread from mouth to mouth influencing how people receive them before they even experience it. Bangkok, unfortunately, has a bad reputation among travelers and backpackers. The first time I heard someone bad mouth Bangkok I was in Seoul and someone was telling me about how smelly and dirty the city was, how they got ripped off, how... I heard the refrain so many times during my travel that when the plane landed in Suvarnabhumi I wasn't sure what to expect. I was worried about going to Thailand. It was the first truly foreign place that I was going and I was afraid.
Physical safety, food cleanliness, and infrastructure all fears because we label Thailand a 3rd World country. I attached deficiency to that, without any thought to where that framework for thinking about the world came from. I learned while writing this that The Three Worlds model was developed to classify Cold War Allegiances and the 3rd world were countries that were not allied to either side. How that term came to represent backward, less than, uncivilized is a product of racism and imperialsim. And I'm upset with myself for falling into that kind of colonial ideology. Traveling through Thailand was really going to challenge my assumptions and I was ready for it.
When I got off the plane I marveled at how clean and white the airport was. It was like the entire facility had just opened and I was the first passenger. I picked up my luggage and navigated my way to the underground rail system. They use actual tokens which I thought was very retro. I slipped my token into the stall and made my way downstairs to the rails. I settled down in my seat and the train began its journey across the city. A mix of families, tourists, and strangers packed the car. The train left the underground tunnel and was briefly filled with the bright light of the midday sun. My first sight of Bangkok was lots of green leaves on trees with buildings towering in the distance. I saw buildings, some dilapidated others pristine. I saw grass waving at the sky and streets lined with empty cars. As we got closer to the heart of the city the buildings grew taller and the land more metropolitan. What I saw was a city like any other. The marked differences were the ornate red and gold shrines and the beautiful curvature of the Thai language written across billboards. Otherwise, I could have been anywhere. I was filled with a sense of familiarity when I was anticipating something foreign. The true power of dehumanization is its ability to mark the familiar foreign.
My stop was coming up and since I arrived in Thailand, I was in cool embrace of air conditioning. Once I stepped onto the platform the humidity and heat enveloped me all at once. I almost ran back to safety but the doors closed and the train continued on its journey. I went to the taxi stand and hopped in the first car. One of Bangkok's reputations was revealed to be true- the traffic is abhorrent. Bumper to bumper for nearly the entire drive. Sometimes the street lights would go from red to green to red again and the car wouldn't move.
My hostel Nap Park was located in Old Town and was a few blocks away from Khao San road. The entrance was recessed creating a narrow pathway filled with couches and a mini stovetop before the main doors. Shoes and flip flops lined the floor and shelf in front of the glass sliding doors that took you inside. Bags were strewn around the interior along with the bodies of weary travelers. I checked in and took a refreshing shower. It was to hot to chill in the sleeping area- the AC is turned off in the dorms during the day to save power. The lobby was the only air conditioned place but I wasn't in the mood to socialize nor did I know how. This was a new environment that I only briefly experienced in South Korea. I forgot to pick up soap and sunscreen before I left London so I took this time to eat and run some errands.
As I explored the various stores and shops I had my first bit of culture shock. Almost every product for sale contained ingredients to bleach your skin, even the sunscreen. As a fierce protector of my melanin i scrutinized every option until I found some that wouldn't erase me. I left one store and walked halfway down the block before I heard someone making a commotion behind me. When I turned the source was a middle aged Thai women. She came up to me holding a 500 baht note worth about $15. She pointed to the ground and handed it to me before walking away. I reached into my pocket and low and behold I had accidentally dropped this note while paying for my goods. I walked back to the hostel thinking the city I was warned about was not the city I was currently experiencing.
One big reason for this is that the city, no the country was ending its period of mourning. Before arrival, I asked one of my Thai friends about things to do in Bangkok and she said that I was coming to Bangkok at a tricky time, the beloved King Rama IX was set to be cremated ending a year-long period of mourning. The normally bright and vibrant city was muted for this ceremony. I got to see a Bangkok that most tourists don't normally see. A reserved and more toned down city. Khao San road known for its debauchery was not allowed to sell alcohol for the entire week; as well all concerts and events were cancelled and postponed. As an outsider, seeing this amount of deference to a head of state was really surprising. I saw grandmothers crying in the street, people with sorrow in their eyes. So it was beautiful and humbling to see how much people truly cared about King Rama IX and all that he did for his country. I spent some time reading the public murals that detailed his life accomplishments.
Many of the tourists who came to Thailand do no research about whats going on, which created tension between them and the community. So while I took this time to talk to the people who worked at Nap Park about what this time means and how to best be respectful many other white and male back packers would loudly complain about how quiet the city was. They came to party they didn't come for this ceremony. They said their vacation was ruined- as if the whole country was supposed to operate on their schedule. The worst offense was this American girl loudly proclaiming that she didn't understand why the city was still in mourning if King Rama IX had died a year prior. I was shocked that someone could be so callous cause there was a Thai woman sitting next to us as well this person was Mexican American so you'd think she would be more sensitive to other cultures. I apologized to my friend and she said she's used to Americans being rude or ignorant.
In my short time in Bangkok I was beginning to see the strong ways in which colonialism influences travel to this day. The ways in which Bangkok operates just like any other capital city but we come to fear it because of its location or reputation. People are just trying to live their daily life just at different rhythms with different intentions. Thats why a lot of the photos I choose look inconspicuous. They were taken in Bangkok and only existed in the time before my camera shutter closed but they could also be any city full of cabs or buildings in need of electricity. We focus on what makes us different rather then everything that connects us.
Thats's what these rifts do they blind us to the truth that we are similar. The question i started to ask myself was, "how does one travel ethically?" I wasn't sure of the answer but I was excited for what I would learn along the way.
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