Updated: May 14, 2020
In Bangkok, the amount of street food stalls almost outnumbers the amount of people commuting, seamlessly moving through the array of motorbikes, taxis, and uneven sidewalks, making their home in the colorful chaos of it all. Buildings with differing structural integrity, people of various cultural backgrounds, and food so spicy the waft of peppers burns your eyes, litter the city encompassing every size, shape, and color possible.
Let me first say, I’m not a city girl. I’m from a small suburb of Oklahoma City. City, is a generous term considering growing-up the “downtown” area comprised of a Harkins Theatre, Sonic, and a couple blocks of restaurants and businesses. My soul expands in relation to the space around me. To see the sky, land, and sea feels like I can breathe a little deeper, and stretch myself in ways I don’t feel in cities, where elbows are bumping, bodies are colliding, and every sense is igniting. I like to think I become more attentive while traveling. What is ordinary becomes extraordinary and my only job is to notice it. In cities with endless possibilities of flavor to notice, I easily feel small, enclosed, and overexerted.
My first trip to Bangkok was the summer after my freshman year of college. I’d spent eight weeks volunteering in rural Laos, surrounded by quiet kind people of another language and culture. In a slow paced country where time stands still and no life circumstance ever provides the reason to rush, I’d fallen in love with meandering around the old town, exploring the night market, and sipping iced coffee overlooking the Mekong River. After eight weeks of small-town, slow paced, take life as it comes living, twenty-four hours in Bangkok was the only thing between me and a wretchedly long plane journey home. Not knowing what else to do, I explored the infamous Khao San Road, ate street food, and met up with a friend. Upon returning to the hotel undoubtedly tired and burnt out, I crawled into bed, curled up and fell asleep. The next morning, I was shaken. Expecting a restful nights sleep, I instead had the worst dream of my entire life. I was nervous to even leave the hotel. I swore I would never return to Bangkok, nor did I see any good in advising others to go. Any redemptive memory of the day before had been washed away in the wake of my dream.
Four years later, I had moved to Chiang Mai, Thailand to teach English at a migrant community center, geared towards ethnic people groups who left a long-standing civil war in Myanmar for better opportunities and a chance at a peaceful life. I’d been in Chiang Mai for about four months and was still avoiding Bangkok. Even with friends coming to backpack across the region, I told them, “There’s no reason for us to go or stay long in Bangkok. View it simply as an inexpensive port city.” Meanwhile, news had reached Chiang Mai that Nadal and Djokovic were to play an expo tennis match in Bangkok. The office was brimming with delight over the possibility of flying to Bangkok for the weekend. While hesitant to join, my loyalty to tennis and a deep fear of people having fun without me motivated me to buy the $30 plane ticket accompanied with no legroom to the Sukhumvit hostel with very thin walls.
Sitting in the back of a taxi on the way to the match, I looked out at the sprawling city lights, the winding highways, and the millions of people moving throughout the city. I thought to myself, “if I died, this city would continue churning. No one would care, no one would see, and life would carry on as normal.” Coming from a town where I felt like a big shot in 2nd grade for making the local paper when my sister and I sold lemonade and donated the profits to a local art organization, it was the smallest I’d ever felt in my life. It was in that moment, looking at the sea of people, the endless miles of lights- no sky, sea, or natural-growing grass in sight, I knew I could either let my fear of this city control me; or I could acknowledge my smallness, my seeming insignificance, and not be controlled by it. In that moment, I took a deep breath and told myself my smallness and my fear would not be the defining factor of how I remembered this city.
I think it's an act of bravery to let oneself feel small, disappearing into the greater nature of things. So often, we can feel understandably hesitant to be knocked from the center of our ideological universes. Perhaps fearful the abyss of the unknown will welcome us, a little too warmly, and not let us leave if we stray from that which is familiar. However, I'm convinced in my smallness, I find perspective. My smallness is a gift. I understand my place in the context of all who have come before me and those who will follow after me.
My friends sharing the taxi, unaware of the moment of sheer terror I’d just experienced on a Bangkok highway over-pass, were the guides to a night full of audacious fun. After watching a lot of Nadal and a little of tennis, we ventured to find Bangkok’s best burger. We journeyed to a two-story jazz club to eat octopus and jellyfish, drink bad cocktails, and sit around a table on the floor of the upper deck looking down on the band as they swung tunes. As I listened, I pondered, “How do I listen to music? Do I listen to each instrument individually? Or do I listen to the whole sound?” We topped the night off by climbing a winding graffitied staircase to a small roof-top lounge over-looking the sky train. Listening to bad jazz covers, we watched the train make its last stops for the night, and slowly meandered our way back home. At one point, a friend asked me, “Were you okay in the taxi earlier?” To which I replied, “You know, this city has always been scary to me. But I had to tell myself to let both of us be more.”