I remember when I first arrived in Thailand. It was a moment I had been preparing for all summer. I had done my research; paid a significant amount for flights, vaccinations, and travel insurance; and watched The Beach multiple times, though I never got around to reading the Alex Garland novel.
Into the furnace
Now, here I was. I had heard much about the infamous Khao San Road: a land of backpackers, cheap hotels, free flowing beer, and fun parties. I took a taxi from the airport and sat in anticipation. I was still jet lagged from my flight and looked forward to a night of carousing followed by a long rest. And then, my taxi arrived and I experienced it: appalling humidity and banality. This was it.
The hotels were relatively cheap (go to the Thai provinces and you will find decent rooms for 150 baht) and there were a lot of backpackers, but the hotels were dirty and most people were not all that interesting. They were not here to travel or experience Thai culture. They just viewed Thailand as a developing country where they could indulge in cheap Bacchanalia. And God the humidity. I had survived a summer in Saint Louis, USA, but this was too much. I did not see how anyone could like Krung Thep.
Getting out of Dodge
After spending a few days in Bangkok and Samut Prakan, I traveled to Koh Samui. Yes, it was touristy and developed, but at least it was beautiful. On Koh Tao, a few days later, I enjoyed some great scuba dives and met some interesting people. I traveled southeast to Koh Chang and Trat, where I later taught for a year. My favorite place was Chiang Mai, where the environment was beautiful and local people and travelers alike were friendly.
I enjoyed Thailand so much that I decided to extend my vacation and work there for an entire year. I chose to work in Trat Town, since it was near islands and I liked the small town feel of the area. Thailand was wonderful, but I had no plans to return to Bangkok, a place I perceived as devoid of the usual Thai charms.
Before I settled down in Trat, I interviewed at several places in Bangkok, and I dreaded every day spent there. I never thought that I would like Bangkok, with its smells, feral dogs, traffic, and ugly buildings. And then, something happened. I visited Bangkok several months later and looked forward to nothing but the possibility of western food. However, when I arrived I found that I really liked Bangkok.
Falling in love again
I had been working for a few months, so money was not as big of an issue, which allowed me to stay in a nice hostel in Silom and enjoy the area around Sukhumvit. But, I even liked Khao San when I went back there later. I found things I used to find repellent to be charming. The chaos, smells, and contradictions of Bangkok intrigued me instead of assaulting me. I enjoyed being in the sprawling metropolis, warts and all. Bangkok was the same, but I viewed it differently.
Now, nearly a year later, I like Bangkok even more. I do not know what changed. For some reason, I perceive Bangkok completely differently than I used to. I love almost everything about it. I hate shopping, but I like the contradiction of the luxury shopping malls sitting right across from the temples and pagodas. So what if there is no sidewalk space; the food blocking your way is delicious and worth having to brave the Bangkok traffic. The river may be septic and brown, but it has its own charms. The noise and ubiquitous billboard advertisements are annoying, but they are a small price to pay for being in the City of Angels.
Bangkok is a city entirely free of self-awareness or apology and I really like that, though I am not entirely sure why. The contradictions of the city make me feel more content with the contradictory ideas and desires in my own mind, and in the actions of other people. Everything contains multitudes, and I like that Bangkok's are not concealed.
Despite Thai peoples' obsessions with appearances and saving face, Bangkok is left to its own devices. The planning is horrible so the city is left to grow naturally. It is ugly, sprawled, and terrifying to drive in, but it is also so human. Like something organic, Bangkok grows and changes on its own. It is not an image you fall in love with at first sight. Instead, Bangkok is an acquired taste. I know a lot of people who hate Bangkok, but I urge them to give it another chance.
Let it grow on you. You will not be disappointed.