This essay was originally published March 2, 2018.
While walking along the banks of the Chao Phraya River, Andy and I happened upon a cafe. We stepped inside and saw an older man coming out of a door just ahead. He smiled at us and motioned for us to come through. I ducked my head and passed through the threshold into an expansive open space with art stacked high against white walls reflecting exposed rod iron gangways that led to private working spaces and doubled as mounts for overhead lights. The building clearly used to be a warehouse; and at some point, fairly recently I imagine, was converted into an artist space and gallery.
There were a few people in semi-private areas working with their heads down. One round man emerged from a cell a few floors up and looked downward upon us. He saw us but didn’t say anything.
Below the exhibition I saw a stark white wall with a floor made of the same iron planks that construction workers use to cover open wounds in the road during repairs. We went down, and Andy saw three chairs lined up against the perpendicular wall. “Go sit over there-- I’ll take your picture.” Andy instructed. And as expected, I obeyed.
I am not camera shy, but I’m also not a model-- and so my little effort to bring you some #Fashion was, in fact, a futile one. I did get one nice shot, though.
Andy, on the other hand, knows his angles. I was eager to make use of this white wall, and so I moved a chair over, and told Andy to sit. I retreated a few paces and pointed the camera at him. Turns out, that that’s all the direction he needed!
People saw us, but nobody said anything. That was the vibe of the place: Noticed, but not bothered. As we headed out, I thought to myself how wonderful this little spontaneous aside was. Here we are walking along without expectation, and then all of a sudden we are inspired to create! Such is the power of a place that is transformed, intentionally, into a space.
The Chao Phraya River originates in the plains of central Thailand at the joint of the Ping and Nan Rivers, meandering southward for 231 miles and passing through Bangkok before emptying into the Gulf of Thailand. The city became the country's (then called Siam) capital in 1782 when General Chao Phraya Chakkri assumed the throne as Rama I. Bangkok sits in the river’s delta; and, among the new king's first acts was to move the court to the East Bank.
As the area was mostly swampland, there were certain challenges and advantages. For example, there were ample natural barriers for protection. The wide westward bend in the river created a moat guarding the site's northern, western, and southern flanks. To the east stretched a vast, swampy delta called the Sea of Mud, which could not be traversed easily.
People, however, cannot live in swamps. So the area was drained and the river tapped to create an intricate network of canals. Over the ensuing 200 years, the canal system expanded and a culture and way of life emerged where most people lived on, or near, the water-- an example of how space came to shape a place.
The city today has evolved away from the elements that allowed it to once be known as the “Venice of the East.” Many of the canals have been filled in and paved over-- replaced with roads that are clogged with old busses, cars, mopeds, and tuk tuks (pronounced “tuke tuke”-- which is a three wheeled cross between a golf cart and a motorcycle). They all pollute with abandon. And then, in the midst of all of this, there is a modern, clean, reliable, and super-efficient metro system that would make any New Yorker envious.
Bangkok, in many ways, is like any major metropolis in a developing country: Extreme wealth inequality, but extreme affordability; and homelessness not so dissimilar from what’s in Los Angeles. Strong cultural norms anchored in its history that govern individual and collective behavior, but an unequal legal system. Free expression-- especially sexual-- but under an unelected, military-ruled government that prosecutes its peaceful critics.
An American friend of mine described this place as 10th century meets 21st century. And I would agree. It’s a city of contradictions: Young and ancient, wild and measured, traditional and radical. Thais describe it differently. They say, “Same same, but different.” And that framing, I think, shows how Bangkok is one of the most human cities I’ve ever visited, and why it is so eminently delightful.
March 2, 2018