The first impression you get of a city is so often coloured by the movies you’ve seen, the TV you’ve watched, the websites you surf and the books you have read; a whole imagined geography that you carry with you. You arrive thinking that you know quite a lot about a place and have a mental checklist of the things you’ll see, the people you’ll meet and the stuff you may well have to buy against your will. This is nothing new of course. In times past you’d have read up on your destination before you arrived and the impressions you would have of a city would be an amalgam of received wisdom, wild rumour and outright fantasy, all of which would be confirmed or proven utterly inaccurate, probably with a degree of disappointment, after a few days.
These days you probably know what your hotel room looks like, the names of the restaurants that have your reservations, what people within the last few days thought about the pork loin with chilli crab and black bean broth. You know so much about the place that you arrive feeling a second hand déjà vu, a sense that you’ve already been there and you know the place intimately. Arriving in New York in my early twenties I sat on the steps of the Metropolitan Museum and felt completely at home surrounded by yellow cabs, hot dog stands and cops with Brooklyn accents, it felt like home. Which it was since I’d loved Hill Street Blues and NYPD Blue so much.
Talking to people about Bangkok and Thailand they tended to fall into two camps. On one side people who felt that Bangkok is dirty, smelly, noisy and I’d be better off getting out and sitting on a beach for a week. A hippyish older gent in Sydney was very concerned that I was intending on spending any time there at all, but then again he'd had a panic attack in an apartment block from the thought of all those people above him, so I'm not sure his opinion was unbiased. On the other side people who probably knew me a little better thought that Bangkok is dirty, smell, noisy and I’d probably love every minute of it. As for myself I figured the only expectations I really had about the city were based on an Indiana Jones movie (and I don’t think that was even Bangkok) and the inevitable lurid tales of lady boys and ping pong shows, which I knew probably wasn’t that fair an appraisal. So I did a bit of reading. What I hadn’t banked on in the run up to my stay was that in the weeks preceding it there would be a military coup and 9 terrorist bombings in Bangkok itself. Enough to keep me away? Not likely, as most of the reading I’d done was about how good the food was.
Like all the best cities, this is a city that lives on the streets. Eating, cooking, sleeping, working, it’s all there for all to see. Seemingly, no matter what the hour is people are sat at counters, at plastic tables and chairs on the pavement eating, bullshitting, joking, playing with their kids and working hard. This is a city of markets, confidence scams, crazed tuk-tuk drivers, a million good things to eat and a few that scared even a committed food lover such as myself, glittering temples, reserved seating on ferries for monks, a million lucky charms, countless statues of the Buddha, cold analytical stares, great big grins and fragments of English, pollution, motorcycle taxis and yellow. Yellow is important, it’s a lucky and auspicious colour at the moment with heavy royal connections so everybody is sporting rather natty yellow polo shirts. The Coldplay song “Yellow” got a big cheer in the club I was in last night. I can’t really stress how important it is right now.
This is a city that will shock, delight and horrify in equal measure. It’s self confident, comic and can take your breath away. From being the solitary diners in the river side pavilion of a house owned by a Thai princess whilst long tail boats buzz by and hilarious looking dinner and dance river cruises amble past to simple awe at a 50 meter golden statue of the reclining Bhudda. From having a massage in a temple where they have been teaching the art for centuries to watching drunk sex tourists get dragged off the streets by hookers, the city is nothing if not diverse. It’s big, it’s dirty and it feels like home.