To see more photos of Bangkok, go here.


Against all advice I went out walking in Bangkok in the middle of the day, when it was so hot I felt I would faint. Perspiration drenched my clothes as soon as I stepped outside of our airconditioned apartment. After a while I was just surging along in a flow of warm wet air and bright sun, thinking of nothing. This was a sort of walking sweat lodge experience. Looking at these photos taken during my third week in Thailand brings back that intensely overheated feeling and the surprise of finding it not entirely unpleasant, once I'd given in, let go.

That day was in September 2015. Now it’s February 2016 and I’m back in Santa Cruz, looking at my photos and reading my journals and wondering how I can make some more travel happen in my life, because I don’t think I've ever learned so much in any three-month period before, except for maybe during some crucial phases of infancy.

I boarded an emotional rollercoaster when I left for Thailand. I was almost too scared to do it. Every day felt like a huge deal during those first few weeks, a passage across a great divide; I’d go to sleep each night exhausted on every level, often thrilled, and wake up confused. A few weeks in, I started to make lots of new friends, and the city began to seem much less intimidating and surreal. That is, until those friends took me to places in Bangkok I wouldn't have found otherwise. Some of those places were quite surreal indeed. But that was later.


In that time before new friends, I was finding my way around the city alone, and each expedition felt enormous. That day I wanted to cross the river. I walked to the Skytrain and rode it to the pier. On the route to Phrom Phong BTS station, all objects were brilliant, as if lit from within. The world seemed like a benevolent place. I was starting to feel more confident about exploring without getting lost, more comfortable taking pictures while I navigated the narrow gutters that stood in for sidewalks next to the streets.

The strangler fig on Sukhumvit 49/1 just before the turn onto Phrom Mit alley has a spirit house built into it. That tree has been wrapped or “ordained” to protect it from harm. It strangles a wall and protrudes into the alley where everyone has to maneuver around it. After that narrow passageway I was on Phrom Mit alley, which isn’t really big enough for two lanes of cars and pedestrians on both sides, but somehow everyone makes it work. In the middle of the day the traffic is minimal there. Two motorbike drivers called out to me about halfway down Phrom Mit, motioned to my camera, and started posing. The more I look at that photo, the more I love it.

I rode a luxuriously cold and empty train to Saphan Taksin station, and went down below to lurk about on Sathorn Pier. The Chao Phraya Express Boat whooshed by a few times, and the various kinds of tourist boats too. I watched people getting on and off and observed the people who hang around the pier during the day. Then I walked over the Taksin Bridge and got my first really good look at the Chao Phraya River, which runs through Bangkok before it reaches the Gulf of Thailand.


I stood on the bridge for a long time looking at all the boats, the tall buildings, thinking What am I doing here? Where am I going? Here was yet another transitional space hanging over water, a space that somehow validated my own transitional reality. I’m finding refuge on a bridge again, I thought, remembering the night before over Phra Khanong.

From a guidebook I learned that the Chao Phraya River begins several hundred miles north at the convergence of the Nan and Ping rivers, and its floodplain is the largest in the country. The river and its tributaries form a tree-like pattern extending into central and northern Thailand. It empties into the Gulf of Thailand a bit over 20 miles south of Bangkok. It's a winding river whose lower section has been changed by humans in several places. When Ayutthaya was the capital of Siam, canals were built to cut off some of the bigger bends in the river, making a more direct route to the ocean for ships. I could see plenty of watercraft on the river now, boats and barges of all kinds. I tried to picture what this river must've looked like before Bangkok's explosive growth in the 1950s and 60s. Take away the skyscrapers and put back the trees and you have a completely different place.   

On the other side of the river I stopped to look beneath the bridge. People were exercising and sleeping at the bottom of the steps, in a shady, green recreation area under the elevated roadway where the train continued. I felt suddenly very tired as I passed through the shadows of the trees. I sat on a bench for a while to watch the empty ferry station and the men playing chess. Nobody paid me any attention, except for one man who looked over at my camera and then looked away. It was too hot to care about what anyone else was doing.


Along Charoen Nakhon Road, on the other side of the river, I reveled in the spacious sidewalks and found a place to eat lunch, a tiny cafe with a steady stream of Thai customers. The owner seemed intimidated and confused by my very non-Thai presence, but he produced a menu with English on it, and we reached an agreement without words. He showed me two packages of noodles and let me pick which kind I wanted. I ate a very delicious meal—noodle soup with chicken—and it cost less than a dollar. By the time I paid my bill, he was smiling at me, perhaps confident now that I wouldn’t spray a barrage of indecipherable English at him, or maybe just happy that I was pleased with my meal.

A few blocks later on the other side of the street I found a temple/school called Wat Suwan, and there I was drawn into a long interlude of looking at walls of photos of people’s deceased loved ones, many with offerings of flowers and food nearby. I wasn’t sure if it was polite to take pictures, but once again it seemed nobody was paying any attention to me at all. In fact, the grounds seemed deserted.

I stared and photographed and was touched by the love shown to those pictures on the wall, and yet it all seemed very strange to me. I could feel my unconscious mind working on this scene, trying to make it fit into something I already knew. Of course this is weird, I said to myself. But it’s not weird at all to the people who live here. And maybe soon it won’t be weird to me. That day I was very aware of how little I understood about what was in front of me, especially when it came to the religious aspects of what I was seeing. There simply hadn't been a strong Buddhist presence in my hometown in rural South Carolina.

Inside the temple the air was stifling. Several women cleaned the floor and I detected in their movements a heat-induced lassitude. It was truly the warmest part of the day. Outside again, I found a thorny vine with alien-looking flowers, one of the most fascinating plants I'd ever seen. This was the cannonball tree, or Couroupita guianensis, and it's often planted near Buddhist temples—the result of a case of mistaken identity. Buddhist tradition claims that while giving birth to the Lord Buddha, his mother held on to the branch of another thorny tree, Shorea robusta, also known as the sal tree. Much later, when the cannonball tree was imported into Sri Lanka, it was mistaken for the sal tree and given a place of reverence on the grounds of many a temple. 

I wandered over to another shrine in the wat complex, this one with a skeletal Buddha statue. As I stared at it, dazed and feeling odd, I was approached by a young man in a military uniform. I hope I’m not standing somewhere I shouldn’t, I thought, turning toward him. “Where you from?” he asked. He was so attractive it was unsettling. “California,” I said. “Ohhh, California,” he said over his shoulder to another young man, enunciating each syllable with enthusiasm, both of them grinning. Each put his hands together in a wai and then disappeared into another building. I walked away feeling a bit more real, a bit less odd. They’d had the unmistakable, utterly familiar look of people who were bored on the job and looking for entertainment.

In the neighborhood of Wat Suwan, I passed by the First Mannequin Company, Ltd. (these folks are the real deal, just check out their website), and a shop selling lots of fan blades. Those fan blade vendors laughed at me when I took pictures of their merchandise. I was on the receiving end of many smiles that day, and I deeply appreciated every single one of them.


I took pictures in that neighborhood for a long time, drinking great quantities of water and iced coffee and never once having to pee, as water seemed to leave my body only in the form of sweat. I remember how I felt looking up those green steps in the photo above, how that perspective in the heat made me dizzy. It was time to go home, or at least go somewhere airconditioned. I got on the train at the Krung Thonburi station and rode to Siam station, which is where you change for the Sukhumvit line, and wandered into Siam Paragon, one of Bangkok's enormous mazelike malls, where I sat in a food court eating Thai dessert tacos. The food courts here have delicious food, yet another reversal of what I’ve always considered to be the norm.

Like so many Bangkok mall wanderers, I was hesitant to leave the cool air, so I strolled and found things to look at. Celebrities were here today: the cast of Hormones, a popular Thai television drama about teenagers. I’d seen some trailers for this show on the train's tv screen. I hung over the railing on the third floor and tried to understand what was happening.

Then I took the train back to Phrom Phong, feeling like I’d filled my eyeballs to the brim. I took pictures of ads at the train station and felted cats in the window of a shop around the corner from home. In the final blocks of walking I tried to understand how skeletal Buddhas and iced coffee and Hormones 3 and that chicken dinner advertisement and those felted cats were connected, but I was too exhausted to figure it out.


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Reader Comments (2)

This is so freaking cool. Thanks for sharing your photos and words.

Saturday, March 5, 2016 at 3:57 PM | Unregistered CommenterCynthia

How the heck did it take me so long to get to reading this? You are such a brilliant writer and photographer. The images and the words make the scenes palpable. I want you to travel more and write more. I wish we could wander the riverfront in Bangkok together.

Thursday, March 9, 2017 at 12:26 PM | Unregistered CommenterJoye

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