PREFACE – This month marks the anniversary of my very first trip to Thailand. Because I flew to Bangkok exactly 20 years ago, I thought it would be a good opportunity to include this article about my initial thoughts and observations. Shortly after my virgin voyage to the Land Of Smiles, I wrote a piece about that extraordinary experience. The scene is set, as we travel back in time to a scorching hot season two decades ago…
BANGKOK – ONE CITY, ONE MILLION CONFUSIONS
My first impression of Bangkok was one of absolute bewilderment. Taking in this city of contrasts was proving to be very challenging. My initial reaction was to feel numbed from head to foot from culture shock. Bangkok — one city, one million confusions. My senses were paralyzed from the very first moment I met Bangkok face to face; the tremendous noise, dreadful air pollution, appalling traffic, horrendous heat and total chaos. Bangkok was certainly living up to its reputation of having the world’s worst traffic congestion and lowest oxygen count. If Bangkok was anything to go by, Thailand and I had certainly not fallen in love at first sight.
I began to wonder which one of Bangkok’s lethal attributes would kill me first — the deadly drivers, the kamikaze motorcyclists, the polluted air, the lack of oxygen… or would I just simply perish from the unrelenting heat? The Thais call their capital Krungthep, which means “City Of Angels.” I can assure you, I could not find anything remotely angelic about this catastrophic city on my first introduction.
WHAT ON EARTH HAVE I DONE?
I was full of great expectations moments earlier on the plane, anticipating the pleasures of being seduced by Siam, but I landed with a resounding bump, and was only bemused by Bangkok. I stepped out of the luxurious air-conditioned Don Muang airport, and was tenaciously greeted by the savage furnace-like heat of Bangkok. I gasped for air as the stifling atmosphere pinned itself to the back of my throat. My initial thoughts turned to those of shock and I thought, am I totally insane for coming here? Yes, I reflected. What on earth have I done? Never before had I suffered the full affects of culture shock, but Bangkok was initiating me to it with the subtlety of a heavy whack on the head.
IT AIN’T HALF HOT MUM!
My friend, who came to meet me at Don Muang International Airport, read the expression on my face and uttered in a quiet voice, “It’s a really scorching hot season, even the Thais are complaining about the heat this year.” In a state of confusion I thought, how could anybody stand this heat?
We loaded my luggage in the boot and got into my friend’s car. I sighed with relief, while I had shelter away from the searing heat. I was still numb as we began to crawl along the roads, clawing for every few inches we could seize. It seemed to me that whilst on Bangkok roads, you are either riding on the wings of death or trapped like insects in a jam jar — there is no happy medium. Waves of cool air soothed my weary body; I momentarily closed my eyes as the air-conditioner hummed its tune.
ROAD TO HELL
It is estimated that anywhere from 6-8 million people reside in Bangkok alone, and several million vehicles cram the main roads into gridlock. I was pondering the fact that it is not surprising Bangkok’s roads have such a notorious reputation. Whilst I continued to struggle to come to terms with Bangkok’s roads, an entire family of four passed by us. They were all crammed onto one tiny motorbike. Was I delirious?
This massive, sprawling metropolis was not my idea of a tropical paradise. At best, it was Central London at the worst peak of rush hour multiplied several fold. Even more disturbing — what about the road users? My Lord! I was looking on in horror as vehicles of all kinds played dodge ‘ems with each other. Streams of traffic were travelling at high speed bumper-to-bumper, criss-crossing in and out of any lane they cared to choose. Just then, a motorcyclist passed in front of the rows of traffic diagonally. Unbelievably, some of the traffic was quite evidently not even going in the same direction. Not only that, but the locals appeared so totally blasÃ© about it all.
Suddenly, we broke away from the traffic jam, because an open stretch of road appeared. The speed of the other vehicles put my head into a permanent spin. Young motorcyclists were weaving in and out of the paths of cars, buses and lorries, all with the daring of motorbike boy racers. Furthermore, I was horrified to notice that nobody was wearing a crash helmet. I was in a world of my own being entertained by this strange spectator sport. I concluded that this was certainly not for the uninitiated. I continued to be astonished by the way these daredevil motorbike riders negotiated intricate swerves and lane changes, all at death-defying high speeds.
THE GREAT ESCAPE
At long last we escaped the congested traffic and were on the way to Pattaya. A new adventure was about to unfold…
SUMMARY – 20 YEARS LATER
Since my first encounter 20 years ago, the City Of Angels has certainly grown on me. Finally, I decided to leave England 10 years ago and Bangkok has been my home ever since.
Bangkok was certainly different in 1988 compared to the modern city it is today. There was no BTS Skytrain, no MRT Subway, no modern traffic lights systems, and no crash helmets. Visually speaking it was a drab, grey, city. Today, even though this massive metropolis is even more heavily populated, I think it looks much better. The number of buildings and hotels that have been erected is simply staggering. Getting around the capital has become a lot easier. This alone is a tremendous improvement. If you are located close to a BTS Skytrain or MRT Subway station, you will reach your destination in no time. Furthermore, these two modern modes of transportation are convenient, comfortable, inexpensive and safe.