A City's Magic: Why Bangkok Holds So Much Mystique

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The very word “Bangkok” has been synonymous with “freedom” since the first moment I set foot onto its streets.  As I stood at the precipice of the Temple of Dawn while the sun set on my ritualistic day in old Bangkok, and looked out onto the city’s familiar skyline, bathed in the same beautiful twilight that was setting in the very first time I saw it, I felt as if I could float away right then and there.

You can be in a serene environment like the above or in sprawling crowded urban-ness very quickly. In the city center, the bustle is so alive.

“SkyTrain,” I said to a round motorcycle taxi driver at the city’s Mo Chit bus station nearly five years ago. “Can you take me to the SkyTrain?”

He nodded and motioned me to get onto the back of his motorbike. I’d never even thought to ride one, but a ladyboy I’d met on the bus (one who looked oddly like Kate Gosselin) had mentioned it would be the best way to avoid Bangkok’s nightmarish traffic, and I trusted her. To be frank, I didn’t really even know what a “SkyTrain” was, only that I felt safest riding with a larger driver, whose body I imagined would be like an airbag in the event of an accident –  I was almost certain I would die otherwise.

But the moment we flew off into the sea of red tail lights, fluorescent-colored taxi cabs and proper ladies in heels and skirts riding on the backs of motorbikes with both legs to one side or the other, I had never felt so alive.

I arrived in Bangkok two Saturdays ago for my eighth visit (my second via Shanghai) and stepped aboard a SkyTrain vehicle for probably the thousandth time. Many aspects of the experience – the frigidness of the air conditioning, the flamboyance of the advertisements for beauty products, the exuberance in the “voice” of the automated operator – still struck me as exciting, especially when compared to the muted character of China.

And yet as I woke up the next morning, in the hotel where I’ve stayed every time I’ve come to Bangkok on my own dime, all the way back to the first time, I found myself lacking inspiration. Even when I met up with my old friend Pin that evening for dinner in Bangkok’s Chinatown (a part of the city which, in spite of my frequent visits, I hadn’t yet explored properly), there was something off about the way I felt, and not just because my jet lag from crossing the Pacific earlier that week was finally catching up with me.

It was something intangible, but also profound. And it really, really bothered me: Bangkok is my favorite city in the world, or at least I thought it was.

I tend to beat boredom by reverting to routine, so I decided to spend my third day in Bangkok the way I’ve spent no less than half a dozen other days there: Exploring a set sequence of temples, the same one I recommend in my guide to three days in Bangkok.

Although I avoid tourist-infested Rattanakosin island in favor of Thonburi, on the west bank of the Chao Phraya river, my sojourn never fails to remind me of a strange truth: Being in Bangkok calms me.

Even when I’m walking down busy Silom Road, to my left the cacophony of 500 exhaust pipes and car horns, and to my right the buzzing of 10,000 neon signs down each small soi, Bangkok’s chaos is oddly congruent with the chaos inside my head. I surf through the colors, smells and electricity as if I’m on the biggest wave in the ocean.

“I kind of hate Ayutthaya,” Pin reminded me as we drove north toward Thailand’s ancient capital. We’d be heading to his family’s hotel that night to celebrate Loi Krathong, an annual festival whose floating lanterns symbolize letting go of negativity, but he was cynical about our plans for the day.

“Of course, it’s important to my heritage as a Thai,” he continued, his dress-clad chihuahua Lana del Pin in his lap as we drove to meet a group of his mother’s friends. “But the inaccurate way they restored the ruins, the people selling souvenirs inside, the price gouging and the fakeness of it all…well, I guess you have to see it for yourself.”

It was funny because on one hand, I felt like it was simply a (much delayed) rite of passage – I mean, how many foreigners wait until their eighth visit to Thailand to see Ayutthaya?

The other side of it, of course, was that I had seen many other “lost” cities in Asia (Angkor Wat in Cambodia, Prambanan in Indonesia, Anaradhapura in Sri Lanka) and I knew the drill: Smartphone cameras, tour groups and gap year brats wearing baggy elephant pants. Less Tomb Raider, more Disneyland.

But I paused for a moment while walking through Wat Mahathat, and noticed a stone head entwined in some serpentine tree roots, which reminded me of a favorite saying of mine. You never know where you’re going to find your Buddha.

“You’ll know,” Pin’s mother said to me on the river dock in front of her hotel, the metal rim of the lantern I gripped between my hands hot from the flame burning at its center. “And at some point, you’ll feel the lantern lifting gently and at the just the right moment, you will let go.”

She didn’t know it, but her words provided the perfect parallel for the day that had just passed and indeed, for my eighth visit to Thailand’s City of Angels as it drew to a close. The reason I had felt so uninspired wasn’t because I had seen, done and understood everything about the city during my previous seven visits – it was because I had closed myself off to the possibility that I had more to learn from being there.

Just as Pin’s mother had said it would, the lantern began to pull upward every so slightly, and without thinking more than a second about it I let go, knowing that it was just the right moment.

And as it floated off into the sky, the thousands of lanterns others had released before me mere pinpricks against the blackness, not unlike how insignificant I really was amid the 10 million people in my favorite city in the world, I saw myself floating away with it – the dark parts of me and the light parts of me. I wasn’t dying or even departing, I was just free.

Bangkok has always been about freedom to me, after all.

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