One year in Bangkok

Thailand is half a world away from Svenn Miki Grant’s home in Trinidad. But little moments of connection make a strange place feel familiar

At one of Bangkok’s floating markets, vendors offer a dizzying array of vegetables and fruit. Photograph by Nimon/Shutterstock.com

Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi International Airport is 16,671 kilometres from Piarco International Airport, Trinidad. That’s over twenty-one hours’ flying time, if you could do it direct. For a Belmont boy, it makes complaining about going to see family in Arima a joke.

I board an airport taxi, destined for the neighbourhood of Dusit Armed, with directions to my hotel written in Thai.

The driver takes the expressway. This tolled highway offers a vantage point over Bangkok similar to the one you get climbing the Lady Young Road in Trinidad, en route to Port of Spain. Approaching the summit provides a magnificent view. In the distance are numerous wats, Thai Buddhist temple complexes of traditional buildings with high arched roofs, their polished saffron, emerald, and clay-red shingles accented with gold. Phu Khao Thong, the man-made “golden mountain,” towers above the Wat Saket temple, and the Chao Phraya river to the west is a vast slithering darkness, much like the motion of the shiny black-skinned catfish that calls its waters home.

It’s here in this taxi that it hits me. Bangkok is very different. Though it’s nightfall, everything is bright and imposing. Skyscrapers tower alongside relic buildings, the mass of vehicles hints at the sheer number of inhabitants of the metropolis, and the lights of the LCD billboards blind me with advertisements, but somehow don’t distract the taxi driver.

As we exit the expressway and descend to ground level, I feel like a cricket fan watching Chris Gayle smash six runs off every ball of an over. I peer out the windows of the taxi at the newness of this place. My gaze can’t comprehend the strange letters sending messages I cannot receive. But I enjoy my ignorance for the moment, and embrace this strange new place.

Next morning, daylight changes my gaze. Curtains drawn open in my fifteenth-floor hotel room, I observe the city’s second presentation.

Another hotel a few hundred feet away wears a huge yellow banner, with text reading Long Live the King. Showing reverence to King Rama IX is common for most Thais — he has reigned for over sixty-seven years, and is the longest-living Thai monarch and head of state.

Walking the streets of Bangkok during the day reveals what the nighttime neon and LED bulbs disguised. The weathered exteriors of buildings housing women, men, and lady boys (transgendered women), who are often trapped by the lure of the potential returns of working in the city’s tolerated though illegal red-light districts. The uneven sidewalks. The construction workers without harnesses skipping along steel beams a hundred feet above the ground, at another building site for a new apartment block or shopping mall. They all seem to be in the shadows of this city in transition.

But although daylight exposes the stark reality of the aesthetically unattractive sides of Bangkok, the charm and general sweetness of its people are what keep this city going — as if the high glucose in many Thai dishes provides nutrition for the human character as well. Whether you’re having som tam (green papaya salad), satay gai or moo (grilled chicken or pork on skewers), or phat pak bung fai deng (stir-fried water spinach or morning glory), sugar is a common ingredient — and if no chillies were used in the cooking, the sauces will make up for it.

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Rush hour here is every hour. And when it rains, it’s elephants and tigers — it makes me run for cover like my old pet dog would back in Belmont

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Bangkok is a maco-size city of fourteen million, capital of a seventy-million maco-sized country, with so much history you need a encyclopaedia to navigate its diversity. Like many cities, Bangkok burdens you with pollution and congested traffic. Rush hour here is every hour. And when it rains, it’s elephants and tigers — it makes me run for cover like my old pet dog would back in Belmont. But the prevailing Buddhism makes it relatively easy to live here. It manifests itself in the reverence Thais show to everyone: hands clasped, head bowed, and the greeting sawadee khrup jumps out.

Unlike many of its neighbours, Thailand — once called the Kingdom of Siam — was never colonised. The Thais were master negotiators, keeping the European powers close to the table, to ensure they didn’t mash their corns.

In fact, Thailand is known as “the land of smiles,” and there’s a fair share of grinning in the average Thai’s facial expression, especially towards farangs, as they call foreigners here. And my lanky six-foot-four demeanour and dreadlocks make me a bit more of a novelty, generating smiles that generally spill over into laughter, and lots of long ohs and uhs as they attempt to measure up to me.

A year after I first arrived in Bangkok, I am yet to find someone who actually knows where I have come from. “Trinidad and Tobago” is just as confusing as “the Caribbean.” So I have become African, Jamaican, or American (which includes anywhere in the Americas, as it should) — even Venezuelan or Cuban. Fortunately, no one has tried to talk to me in Yoruba or Spanish, but when that bridge comes along, I’ll work on a way to cross it.

I am a traveller, so I know I can’t be trying the hegemonic English-language position, but I would have expected the city that entertains the most tourists in the world to know a little Thai-lish, at least. Nope! And you know what? I like this the best. Every activity is an adventure.

Besides, my sawasdee khrup and kop khun khrup (thank you) are perfect now. These days my pronunciation of the names of goods at the talad (market) stimulates confidence in the vendors. I say “two coconuts” so well in Thai that the old lady behind her stall thinks she can just start a full-on conversation — only to expose my embarrassingly slow uptake of the language. Drivers of the noisy three-wheeled rickshaws called tuk-tuks now know that I am going to Phibun Watthana. The motosai rapjang motorcycle taxi riders have a laugh at how my knees make their bikes as wide as a tuk-tuk.

And this growing familiarity in a crowded place makes me feel a bit like I am at home — a little same, though very different.