Five years ago I was 31 years old, had just started what I thought was an exciting new job and my partner had just graduated from law school. His law school though was a three-hour drive away and even though we owned a townhome together in the DC metro area, he had to rent an apartment near the school and commute back home on the weekends. This went on for three years and while it wasn’t an easy time for either of us, we knew it was for the best in the long term. That’s why I wanted to plan a huge celebration to commemorate his passage of the Bar Exam so we could relax and spend some time together. After years of hoarding frequent flier miles and Marriott Rewards points I had managed to cobble together an amazing, $25,000 trip at no cost to us. Our plan was to explore parts of Southeast Asia, Bangkok principally.
My partner had been to Thailand before; he spent a month or so there while backpacking around the world after college. It was my first time though and I was excited. It was also my first time to Asia and my first time to what one would call a developing country. (Well, sort of my first time) I had a lot of expectations, but of course Bangkok would prove those all wrong in every good way possible.
We only had a week there, but I was mesmerized. The smell of the city is what I remember most. Bangkok has its own, glorious smell and to me is a combination of exotic spices, foods and people. Our hotel was on the Chao Phraya River and watching the sunset every night from our balcony quickly became our favorite part of the day. The week was a blur of sightseeing, street food and river taxi rides. By the end of the second day I understood why my partner loves the city so much as I had fallen victim to its spell as well.
That was a happy time; looking back I feel like it was a more innocent time. It was the last fling before my partner launched into a stressful law career, making long trips a hard to achieve luxury. It was before we both had gone through certain tragedies in our lives, making us grow up faster than we would’ve liked and casting a pall of realism that would never leave us. It was before we built a house and before life pressures had taken their toll. It’s a period that I have come to romanticize; a golden era in the life and times of Matt as it were. I suppose that’s why I wanted to return to this city to mark our 10th anniversary in the spring of 2012, to return to that age of innocence.
Just as we had changed, a little for the better and a little for the worse, cities must necessarily change as well. Bangkok especially is in a frenetic state of change; the ebbs and flows of the city can be sensed immediately. Even though I knew it had changed in some ways, I was curious if it would still be the city with which I’d fallen in love. I also hoped that it would help us return to a state of innocence and grace we had lost.
What struck me first as our car left the airport and entered Bangkok was how much more of it there seemed to be. Sure Bangkok had modern buildings and malls when we were there a few years ago, but there seemed to be more of them. Where we stayed was in the middle of this modern mass of commercialism and had it not been for the blanket of humidity, I could have been almost anywhere in the world. Across the street was a Starbucks, next to a McDonalds, next to a Häagen-Dazs. Where was Bangkok? Where was my pineapple in a bag and flash fried chicken and rice cooked on a street corner? Where were my monks and random kids running through the streets?
Not to worry, they’re all still there, but even they didn’t seem the same. Bangkok is even more of a tourist draw than it was five years ago, a feat I had presumed to be impossible. The city is almost overrun with people from around the world on vacation, eager to explore the orient for the first time. I think it’s great they’re there, but I wish they hadn’t all been there at the same time.
We sought to recreate some of our favorite experiences, in a subliminal attempt to recapture that youth and innocence I mentioned. Wat Arun was as magnificent as always and reaffirmed the superlative of being my favorite place in Bangkok. We crossed the river for dinner at our favorite restaurant, which due to some miracle was still there. We watched the sun set over the mighty river and marveled at the reds, blues and purples that splayed across the sky in a perfect gloaming. We ate rice and chicken, we retraced old routes and discovered new neighborhoods. We were still annoyed at Khao San Road and just as thankful for Thai hospitality as ever. Even these experiences had changed though, some for the better and others not.
Although I could see the change in the city, the growth and expansion, I began to wonder if the change I felt wasn’t coming from me instead. I’m a much different person than I was just five years ago and while I can point to some concrete aspects of Bangkok that have evolved over the same time, I think I was the reason for not enjoying the city as I once did.
I wrote about this before and at the risk of repeating a post, I’m not sure it’s possible to “go home again” and try to reproduce magical travel experiences. Bangkok taught me that while the city changed, that’s not what I had a problem with. I had a problem with how I had changed.
We spent our last evening at a fancy hotel, enjoyed a massage and an evening of Thai food under the stars. All around us the city was moving as fast as ever and Thai techno music reverberated off the banks of the river from a passing dinner cruise boat. No, it’s not the same Bangkok I remember, not exactly. But that’s ok because even though both the city and I had grown up a bit, I still loved it as much as ever.