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Random notes from Bangkok

Random notes, because a month away is a long time, and I haven't thought through everything that happened over there. (Also, since I've been back for a week, all the usual duties and problems, and to be fair, some pleasures, have piled up, and now I am more overloaded than ever. So maybe I'll never think everything through....)

Anyhow, twig asked about the hospital visit, so I guess I'll start there!

1. Hospital. So, I checked my FaceBook news feed -- FaceBook turns out to be good for something after all! -- and saw that my young quasi- or honorary relative in Bangkok is in the hospital! After working through the post's Thai with Google Translate, to make sure I haven't misunderstood some idiom, like "appendicitis" being trendy slang for "a really bad day," and finishing up Campaign Countdown, I took a meter cab from from my Internet cafe in Silom to the hospital -- FaceBook also having captured the hospital's location, since my friend had posted to FaceBook from her cell! And quite a cab ride it was, too -- Bangkok at rush hour makes the other City of the Angels look small and simple and slow. Fortunately, I had asked a staffperson at the cafe to write down the name of the hospital for me in Thai script, so I had something to show the driver besides the Google Map to the hospital on a tab I'd left open in the browser on my laptop. And I had my big bus route map of Thailand with me, so I could guess where I was from the street signs and landmarks.

We successfully arrive at the hospital. Now to find my friend! I enter through the extremely laid-back and not at all ER-like Emergency Room entrance, and find the front desk. After the two receptionists together ascertain that I don't seek treatment, hence don't need to show my passport, we settle down to figure out what I do want, which is to visit my friend, and unfortunately I don't know my friend's name... That is... Thai people have formal and informal first names, and although I knew my friend's informal name, it must have been her formal name that was in the computer. Finally, one of the receptionists asks "Do you know her birth date?" Miraculously, I have my friend's FaceBook page open in another page on my browser, and miraculously, she hadn't given FaceBook a fake date (I tend to use New Year's Day). So they find her record, call the room, and up I go. (Later, I'm told the call began "There is a foreigner here to see you...")

So, to answer twig, about the hospital. Bangkok is a world city of 12 million people, and it follows that what you can get in London or Paris or Manhattan or LA you can get in Bangkok, generally for half what you pay in the West. This includes health care.* (Dentistry especially. Thais try to avoid suffering, even for others, hence the cleaning, the drilling, the filling, the extractions, everything I dream of one day being able to do for my teeth, tend to be done gently and with plenty of anesthesia. Unlike this country (the Great State of Maine has terrible issues with dental care, and especially painless high-quality dental care)). The hospital was more lightly built and scaled a little bit smaller than an equivalent building in the States**, but then it didn't have the prison complex feel that our hospitals have, either. The technology seemed not quite cutting edge -- the nurse took my friend's pulse by counting beats from her wrist, for example -- but I think we over-emphasize technology anyhow. And everything was bright and clean; Thai culture is big on clean***. No snakes, bugs, or anything like that!

And going back, I could take a taxi to the nearest subway stop, and from there to my hotel -- well, to dinner, actually -- so I saved some money.

One feature of my hospital expedition, all the way from the cafe up to my friend's room, was a sense of sweetness in the interactions, which seems to be one feature of Thai culture. I regularly experience the extreme (not servile) willingness of Thai people to understand what I'm trying to say, help me get where I need to go (which is not the same as where I want to go), fight through obstacles on my behalf, and take visible pleasure in many small acts of kindness.

I remember a story from one expat, though I can't find the link: He moves into a working class neighborhood and, as is polite, leaves his shoes outside the door. His shoes disappear, and he thinks, "Oh well, somebody stole them." A few days later, they reappear outside his door, polished! The simple message: First, a collective, and anonymous, merit-winning act of kindness and welcome. A more subtle message: Thais like clean! And even subtler nudge: Dress for success; in general, the expat community doesn't dress well, looking rather like they were at poolside instead of in a world city. Thailand makes Victorian Britain look egalitarian, and one way of ensuring proper deference to your presumed rank is to dress the part. Note that none of these messages -- like the famous Thai smile, which is not about intimacy -- are especially personal. It's not about you, but rather that Thais have a high sense of how their world should be, and their place and your place in it. I'm not trying to diminish the sweetness; only to contextualize it. Afer all, a mango is sweet because it's a mango, not because it's my mango. There's a lot to be said for a culture where small acts of kindness -- even to foreigners -- are the norm; especially in a medical setting!

2. Transport. Bangkok is famous for its traffic jams, which seem to occur randomly through the day, except when it rains, when they are certain to occur. But that's really a problem with cars, which striving Thais are unfortunately buying and which are a class marker (rather like Krispy Kreme donuts). In fact, if you're a fan of any sort of transport, Bangkok has something for you! I started making a list, which kept growing and growing and growing. Besides private automobiles:

  1. Elevated Rail (BTS, the famous Sky Train, air con and hi so****)
  2. Subway (MRT)
  3. Ferry
  4. River boat
  5. Canal boat
  6. City bus (a combinatorial explosion of lines and classes)
  7. Meter taxi
  8. Gipsy taxi
  9. Tuk tuk (now Thais take them, not only tourists (!!)
  10. Passenger taxi motorcycle (two wheel)
  11. Family motorcycle (two wheel)
  12. Freight motorcycle (three wheels)
  13. Passenger pick-up (often feeder to public transport)
  14. Freight pick-up
  15. Long distance vans
  16. Long distance buses

So part of learning to live in Bangkok would be mastering the intricate network of the transport system, which has so far succeeded in preventing the automobile from choking the city to death! Well, my hotel was in Khlong Toei. And when I figured out the bus system enough, I took the bus down Rama IV to Sala Daeng (and be sure to click through for context).

And I see I forgot bicycles. However, I saw very few of them.

3. Soil. Bangkok is built on a flood plain, whose rich soil is the original source of dynastic wealth and power. The city is not exactly as flat as a billiard table, but close. That's why, when the floods came last year, a breach in the sandbags would have been very serious: A foot or two of water would have spread for miles through the city, with nothing to stop it (and did, in the Don Muang area). Out in the country, one could see the high water mark of the flood on building after building for miles and miles: About a foot above the ground.

And normal buildings in Thailand -- as opposed to high rises -- are built on slabs placed directly on the soil. I remember seeing a small restaurant, about the proportions of a shoebox, appear in a low commercial row building. The first day, they took the store that was there down to the bare walls; the second day, they jackhammered the existing slab out, exposing not a basement, but bare red clay soil, and stacked all the new fixtures and tiles onto the sidewalk; and by the third, they had poured a new slab, which had set, and were tiling***** it and putting in fittings. Seeing a city as a thin layer over soil is new to me; Manhattan doesn't feel that way! Anyhow...

Thai plumbers seem not to use traps. And so, until I learned to I learned to put a plug in the sink drain and close the toilet lid, my first-floor hotel room was suffused with a rich vegetal (and not shit!) aroma whenever it rained! I understand that composting is difficult in the tropics, but my room smelled like I imagine the floor of a tropical rain forest smells. And I also smelt the same smell on the fifth floor of the gigantic and hi so Siam Paragon mall! So it's not just in working class districts like Khlong Toei; the whole city is built on the same soil, which is a nice metaphor...

* * *

So, those are some random notes. I should have more!

NOTE * I would, however, do nothing serious without a personal recommendation, and ideally a local contact.

NOTE ** This is true of most buildings in Thailand. Public works projects, by contrast, tend to be, if anything, equally or more massive than projects here (check out the piers on this bridge over the Chao Praya).

NOTE *** Thais are as big on clean as Mainers are about not letting heat out of the house in the winter.

NOTE **** High society, as opposed to "lo so," low society.

NOTE ***** Tiled floors everywhere. Beautiful, easy to clean, pleasant to the soles of the feet.

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twig's picture
Submitted by twig on

Fascinating details. It sounds like a wonderful place. I'm trying to imagine the kind, smiling, thoughtful people and decent, affordable medical care happening here. Okay, that didn't work.

Two questions: Are you going back? And do you have plans to tell us more about teaching English? That has always seemed like a fun -- and challenging -- way to live abroad.

Submitted by lambert on

... so there is plenty of the dark side as well as the light. But all in all, it's a very pleasant place to be. Of course, visitors always see a place at its best!

English is my "core competency," but I'm not sure English teaching is ideal. The avoidance of conflict and the consciousness of rank probably create a situation that is not ideal for me in the classroom. My basic goal is to make writing (or editing/publishing; content creation) my main focus for the remainder of my time on the planet. Fortunately, I can do that from anywhere....

twig's picture
Submitted by twig on

I'm looking for a better country to live in and being a writer makes it a lot easier, in many ways. No worrying about getting a local job, for example. If there's internet, I'm in business!