Bangkok. Friday. Evening. Cool (relatively).
I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many down vests, knitted hats, and overcoats along Sukhumvit Road as I did this morning. It was 24 degrees Celsius outside, and several Thais I encountered seemed to be shivering and freezing.
Despite a couple of visits to bars last night, I woke up at seven and looked forward to going out for a few laps in Benjasiri Park, a long-time favorite lung here in Bangkok. A lap around Benjasiri is about 700 meters, and today there were over 100 of us, some walking briskly and others, like me, jogging.
The variety of running techniques offered the usual delightful spectrum: from the slightly rigid T-Rex style where arms barely move and stay close to the body, to those who seem to float on feather-light legs and aerodynamically shining arms. It’s starting to feel perfectly fine to be overtaken more often than passing people – as long as those passing me are younger…
I noticed that in the middle of the park, around the pond with pedal boats, a couple of aerobics classes were taking place, and a group of seniors was practicing Qigong or Tai-Chi. A young guy was shooting penalty shots with a bright green basketball, and the old guy who welcomes everyone at the park’s entrance stood in the warm morning sun, watering Christmas flowers with a content smile on his face.
A few years ago, during a dinner in or near Malmö, I can’t remember where, a friend asked us what it was about Thailand that made us return time and time again. I don’t remember what we answered, probably because there is no simple answer. And to be totally honest, I’m not sure they would understand even if I tried to explain.
Hooked on a feeling, as Swedish singer Björn Skifs once sang.
My first visit to Thailand was in 1988, and I still haven’t been to any country in the world that comes close to offering everything that Thailand still has: friendly, polite, honest people, fascinating culture, delicious food, fantastic natural experiences (mountains, jungles, beaches, islands, cities), and a reasonably solid infrastructure, making it easy (and safe) to stay and enjoy life here. Neither Charlotte nor I would want to live permanently in Thailand, but being able to come here and stay for a while from time to time truly enriches our lives.
Of course, it’s a different Thailand today than when I traveled around the country 35 years ago. Back then, despite my backpacker attire and limited budget, I always felt like a fairly wealthy Westerner who often received more respect than I deserved. Of course, there were well-off Thais even back then, but they were barely visible. Today it’s the opposite. I’m still respected, perhaps mostly because I’m now an older man, and I still wear a variation of the same backpacker outfit (T-shirt, cargo shorts, sneakers). Old habits die hard, I suppose.
But for many years now, there’s a large and visible Thai middle class with a standard of living comparable to that of any average Westerner. And I’m no longer an exotic curiosity from the West but just a slightly older man in backpacker clothes paying with an embarrassingly weak currency (Sweden’s krona).
During my very first visit to Bangkok, there were only a few bland department stores (Robinson’s). Today, there are at least a dozen gigantic luxury department stores and an equal number of large, lavishly designed shopping malls – unparalleled in Europe and the USA. Except for some Russians, Chinese, and Japanese, the majority of those shopping in these extravagant palaces are Thai nationals with clearly more disposable income than I have.
Tonight, another mall, EMSPHERE, was inaugurated, where, among many other well-known brands, IKEA has a city store. We were there for the grand opening, but after just a few minutes in the swelling crowd, I felt a hint of claustrophobia and quickly retreated to the aforementioned oasis, Benjasiri Park, where tranquility gradually returned.
Despite the significant changes Bangkok has undergone since my first trip from the old Don Mueang airport in a Tuk-Tuk, as a newly arrived 25-year-old in the late 1980s, fortunately, many of the delightful contrasts that make the city so incredibly exciting and interesting are still abound. High and low, big and small. Ancient and brand new, side by side.
After our flight with Air Asia from Osaka landed at Suvarnabhumi Airport on Tuesday around noon, and our passports were stamped with new visas, we connected our phones to a Thai mobile network and took the express train from the airport to Sukhumvit Road. The sun was setting between the city’s forest of skyscrapers, and downtown seemed to bathe in a beautiful glow. We both felt great to be back in Bangkok. A kind of homecoming.
Ten years ago (2014), Charlotte, Elle, and I lived here for six months, just a few hundred meters from where I’m writing this on Soi 24. We rented a reasonably large apartment with two bedrooms and two bathrooms in a hotel (Oakwood) with a Swedish GM and super-friendly Thai staff. We really appreciated all the conveniences included in the rent and definitely the practical location. Being close to so many good restaurants, department stores, and almost next door to Phrom Phong Skytrain station, if we wanted to leave the neighborhood, was absolutely fantastic.
Unsurprisingly, I have a vast collection of photographs and countless hours of video footage from that lengthy stay and all the times we visited Bangkok before and since. A coffee table book is in the works and should be ready early next year. The above scene of Pooky, a local model and yoga instructor (incidentally married to a Danish fellow), was captured near the pond in Benjasiri Park and might be included in the aforementioned book