Bangkok (Thailand), 24.07.2013
Never will I forget the first time I went to the movies, I must have been 8 or 9 years old. Not only was it one of those exiting discoveries my father introduced me too. It opened up a new world of dreams and fantasies, after having discovered those of the book (on printed paper, for those who can’t remember the world before ebooks) and the audio drama on cassette tapes. But the movie also left a series of images in my mind that I will never forget. Fritz Lang‘s 1927 masterpiece tells a version of the story of Romeo and Juliet in the futuristic setting of Metropolis, the mega city of high rise buildings, sky trains and technology that eats the obedient workers of the under class alive so that the glitzy upper class can thrive. Nobody got eaten alive around here by a monster machine in the last 24h, at least I haven’t seen it. But today’s Bangkok is that 1920’s Metropolis. Since I first came to this city in 2004 its buildings have become higher, richer, more modern. Tall glass and steel towers are everywhere, shopping malls compete in size, glamour and modernity. Every meter I walked down Sukhumvit Road was an intense branding bombardment, with all the international usual suspects of branded cool omnipresent. Consume and smile, you upper classes of the over world! I saw the 1920’s Metropolis with Giorgio Moroder‘s music, today’s version came to the tunes of Photek.
The main streets of the central districts are layers of flows of people, from the metro underground, to pedestrians, flashy cabs and cars on the ground, and on top of them layers of elevated walkways, motorways, and trains. The higher I went, the more abstract and cold the city seemed. While on the streets the humidity and heat made me sweat like in India, it was also the level where the few beggars that are left here dwelled. A striking image was an old man sitting on the floor in front of a Sky Train entrance selling fans made of paper and wood, a short flashback to another time and world that got eradicated in modern Bangkok. On the higher levels, the urban population moved in smart fashion, tablets and smartphones were everywhere, the omnipresent TV screens massaged my brains with a repetitive, western style, consumption driven advertising marathon that promises a perfectly clean and happy world where everybody smiles and shines. And the aircon got temperatures cut by probably half compared to the street.
On the ground I found smaller buildings squeezed between the high rises, every meter is dedicated to commerce and traffic. A few temples and shrines were the rare exception. And, much like in Blade Runner, there was an underground, non glitzy world behind the main streets. In a dark passage I found an alley of eateries, small and packed tables on one end, a dense row of food stands on the other side, selling fruit, rice dishes, noodles, hot and cold drinks. I had some OK pad Thai noodles, a bottle of water and an espresso Vietnamese style for 75 THB (€1,84). I was the only non-Thai I spotted, around me the workers of the malls and offices and hotels ate their cheap and tasty traditional lunch. I was very tempted to try a dish at every stand.
The night before I had arrived late, after midnight. The metro was closed and I had to take a cab. In freezing cold temperature the friendly driver raced on huge motorways through skyscraper areas. Advertising and city lights surrounded us, reflecting on the tar wet still from the rain. The hotel I had booked last minute from New Delhi was a chic cocoon, with clean, modern and spacious rooms. Right in front of it stood groups of prostitutes, real girls and some I wasn’t too sure about. As I walked a couple of blocks for a late night hot and spicy noodle soup it was all smiles and hello’s everywhere down the street. On the roadside stood cocktail and food stands along the usual clothes and souvenir shacks. The next morning the street had changed to a clean business people and tourists location, hot and humid. No booze, no hookers. All the time I walked through the streets I wondered if to like it or not. Then I thought of the poverty in India, the hopelessness in the former Soviet countries. Isn’t it better that people buy smart phones, drink iced lattes, drive aircon metros and new Toyotas to their office jobs then the poverty, dirt and lack of perspective on the other side? Thailand rocks!
Bangkok is full of strange westerners. I mean, there are many people from the western world, but among them the percentage of bizarre characters is far above the average at home. Bad dressed tourists, white skin galore, ugly old men, many of them holding hands with thai girls or boys, dyed hair either true or wig, overweight people. It is one of the few places I can think of where the mostly female international shopping crowd was a relief to see, because it remembered me that not all tourist are spooky. Before taking off for the airport after this short intermezzo, I dried down the sweat in the hotel lobby. The daily dose of monsoon rain had just stopped pouring down on the street. While I checked my emails, a western guy walked into the lobby, followed by a skinny Thai girl on high heels. They disappeared into the elevator. The bell boys didn’t bat an eye. I remembered I had seen booze, snacks and sealed condoms on top of the fridge last night in my room. And I thought I had booked a decent place! Time to get out.