First three weeks in Bangkok

To see more photos of Bangkok, go here.


In the wee hours of August 19, I left San Francisco on a plane headed for Taipei, where I changed to another plane headed for Bangkok. Almost before I could realize I’d left, I was in my new home. Yes, that’s right, my new home. I live in Thailand now. How long will I be here? I don’t know. Long enough to feel like a resident and not just a visitor, however long that is.

I have never done anything like this before. I’ve never traveled more than a couple of days outside of the USA. I had no idea how it would make me feel to move to southeast Asia, but I was willing to find out. An opportunity came to live with friends in Bangkok, and I took it, and now life is completely different. The world is much bigger than it used to be. I’m not exactly who I thought I was.

It was during the 13-hour plane ride to Taipei that I felt the shift begin. I was expecting to be awake most of that flight, but I ended up with an entire row of seats to myself, and before three hours had passed I fell unconscious, sleeping as if I’d been drugged. The weeks of hard work preparing for this move had caught up with me. I remember waking up for a few minutes at a time, high in the air above the ocean, baffled and lethargic. I remember eating dinner and then breakfast out of tiny pastel-colored plastic dishes. The animation of our flight path playing on the screen in front of my seat made me wonder if I was dreaming.

If you’ve read my other posts, you know how much I like a dreamlike sensation, how I’ve chased after it and tried to create it. Nothing in my previous experience prepared me for how dreamlike, how surreal life would feel when I moved halfway around the world. It felt strange beyond description to look out from my balcony that first night and see this view of my new city.


I had no idea what to expect when I arrived here. Bangkok wasn’t necessarily the location I had in mind several years ago when I first envisioned moving to southeast Asia. I assumed I would start my international journeys someplace more rural, less modern, definitely someplace less crowded. I am not a city person, I have often said. On the phone and over email, Steven was enthusiastic about Bangkok. A New York City native, he most definitely is a city person, so of course he would love this kind of place. Still, his enthusiasm made me think there might be something in it for me. I decided to go for it. I’d be among friends; if I went into a conniption, they could always bundle me up and mail me back to California.

As you can see from the photos above, I have landed in a luxurious spot. My friends and I live in a mostly-expat apartment complex with all the trimmings, of which my favorite is the pool. Floating in the cool water at the end of most days has helped my unconscious mind make sense of this latest plot twist in my life. The sweat, the confusion, the anxiety of dislocation, all of these dissolve for a while. Especially if I go in just as darkness falls.

Night is when I feel most serene here. It’s when the visual stimulation of the city is a bit less overwhelming, and I can relax and feel proud of whatever new things I did that day. Maybe I found my way to a new destination without getting lost, or I ordered some new street food thing and it turned out to be delicious. Even if all I managed to do was walk around the neighborhood, I still feel a sense of accomplishment for leaving the apartment and venturing out into a world that sounds, smells, and feels strange to me.


My first week was so surreal that I barely remember it now. I alternated between euphoria and despair. Being away from the open space and trees of Santa Cruz was a huge shock, even more so than the cultural differences I was beginning to notice. My desire to wander into the forest would not be satisfied for who knew how long, and every time I remembered that, I felt vaguely horrified. But then I’d come across something I’d never seen before, and I’d remember how in Santa Cruz I had craved this kind of encounter. A thrill would run through me, along with a sense of anticipation for all the moments of discovery I could expect if I stayed long enough.

Week two was less surreal and much more distressing. It began to hit me how far from home I was, how long it would be before I saw my family again. I was exhausted from trying to make sense of the world around me; I dreamed of Santa Cruz at night, then woke up in Bangkok, and every morning it felt incredibly weird. The massive differences between the two places became more apparent every day. A deep unease persisted, a discomfort not quite like anything I’d ever felt before. Not the worst unease I'd ever felt, just different. It was impossible to coast along as I had in the USA. All the familiar environmental cues that had made it possible to live in a daydream world were now absent.

If I lingered too long inside the apartment, the discomfort got worse, but as soon as I started walking down the street, curiosity chased fear away. Week two was when I realized that once again, I was in a situation where walking around with a camera would save me, so that’s what I did.


Whenever I return to the shady green pathway that leads to our building, I congratulate myself on another day of surviving as a Bangkok pedestrian. The main roads have sidewalks, but the neighborhood streets don’t. I travel on the tiny shoulder of the road, a space just over a foot wide, while cars and motorbikes brush past me. It would be more dangerous if the traffic weren’t perpetually snarled in Bangkok at almost all times of day. Those cars brushing past me are moving very slowly.

Motorbikes are faster because they can zip around the cars, but motorbikers are usually quite good at avoiding obstacles such as pedestrians. As long as pedestrians watch where they’re going, that is. I have to hold up my end of the bargain and not make any sudden stupid moves.

Those bikers in their reflective vests line up on corners to offer rides. That’s how my friend Steven gets home from the Skytrain station after work. I have not yet availed myself of this cheap and quick form of transportation. I like being able to see into the windows of the cars, check out what people are selling from their carts, and squeeze past other city dwellers on foot. I might change my mind about this when I start working in a couple of months. Then again, I might not. The walking commute is a familiar old habit, a reliable coping mechanism, even when fewer trees are involved.


My explorations haven’t all been at ground level. A new friend took me to a rooftop bar in the Silom area, where we watched storms approaching and not arriving. The weather created a bizarre kind of light that made the city look like a miniature film set. It was there I learned of the existence of a rosé version of Hoegaarden beer, which does not taste good. I was glad I hadn’t ordered it myself. My dinner companion bravely finished his glass, but he will probably never ask for it again.

Bangkok from above looked beautiful. Lights in many hues flickered on as the sky darkened, and the wind picked up as the storm moved by. "I love this city," my friend said as we looked down, a nice thing to hear about a place I'd just moved to. After a day of sweating and fighting my way down streets without sidewalks, it was exhilarating to be up high, with the breeze whooshing through my hair. A bit of the surreal feeling returned, but I managed to convince myself that my new life does include such things as gazing at city lights from rooftop bars.

Week three is ending and I have only been seeing the surfaces so far; my experience has been a collection of textures and sensations combined with my own wildly varying emotional reactions. I feel like a baby, confused and overwhelmed, then distracted by colors and sparkling drops of water. What actually goes on here? Much more than I can conceive of in this moment. When I start to figure it out, bit by bit, I’ll let you know.


« More about week three | Main | Escape to Kings Canyon, part 6: Grant Grove and the national park story »

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