7:30pm, Bangkok, Sukhumvit Road, one of the city’s major arteries. I’m in the front right part of a bus that looks like a pierced tin can on wheels. Three Indian men, most likely tourists, squash me against the bus window while they show each other photos. At my feet, a Thai woman in business clothes sits on a tiny plastic chair, a makeshift seat, and I can get a good view of everything she’s doing on her phone. Besides these four characters, it is so packed that I can only see fragments of heads, arms, and thighs. The bus has no glass in its windows and, to change my position a bit, I sit down on the frame and tilt my head out to a sidewalk lined with stalls selling bootleg DVDs and counterfeit Viagra. The driver connects his phone to an improvised sound system and plays a Bollywood-inspired Thai song over and over again. No one in the bus protests, and he seems more and more invigorated by the music, almost beginning to dance in his chair. Oh, and we are not moving. We haven’t been moving for 15 minutes.
This is neither a complaint about the traffic in Bangkok, nor a noteworthy instance of bad luck. It is a good deal of how I spent my time in this city: being stuck in traffic jams, waiting for delayed buses, waiting for a real bus in a ghost station, or for a ghost bus in a real station (not without double-checking the map).
Cities usually require a special energy to explore. The first step is to accept that, as a traveler wishing to get past the veneer of things, you will only get to know a very small slice of a big city. The second step is to have a plan, so as to soften the realization of the first step with the illusive thought that you have grasped the place and have an “impression” of it. However, in my first days there, Bangkok stubbornly sabotaged any of my planned attempts to explore it and I ended up just walking aimlessly. After these long public transport quests, I had accumulated enough frustration to seek comfort in food at a low key but highly praised restaurant.
A lady in a colorful loose-fitting dress at the next table made a funny remark about my travel diary. Because of my mood, I didn’t catch her joke at first, and mechanically asked her what brought her to Bangkok. Turned out this lady was Bernadette, a Dutch cyclist in her 50s, who had been biking on her own extensively through parts of Asia, and was still at it with the mission to produce a guide for other cyclists. After all these years, she had travel in her veins and that inquisitive smile of someone who is genuinely interested in your life, no strings attached. She too was in low spirits, because her bike had broken down along the way, and she was stuck in Bangkok for several days waiting for it to be fixed. We talked at length about what travel means and how your chosen mode of transportation can impact on your experience. With fast buses that can take you from A to B while offering all sorts of onboard distractions, you don’t realize that there is a whole world between A and B that you miss out on, and that’s where Bernadette’s way to travel by bike shines, because it provides her with an uninterrupted experience. Amid many anecdotes from her journeys, Bernadette told me that curiosity is a traveler’s most powerful weapon and that a travel guide sometimes serves to find out where not to go. We said goodbye with a hug and she teasingly urged me to try and travel by bike at some point, “but if you don’t like it, just stop, because traveling by bike is not for everyone.”
The next day I met Mam, the mother of a good Thai friend of mine, and what was supposed to be a lunch rendezvous became a full day of walks and heartwarming conversation, and a fresh way of seeing Bangkok. Never lacking in the power to reinvent herself and in the determination to pursue her interests, Mam had recently published her first book, “Blind Earthworms in a Labyrinth,” which was well received, won an important award, and encouraged her to continue writing. She took me to Chinatown, an enclosed micro-universe within Bangkok’s own mind-boggling eclecticism. For most of her life, she had considered it an uninteresting place, but recently she had begun to look closely into it for her next book project, and was spending a lot of time researching and talking to the people in Chinatown, increasingly fascinated with the influence that this small area had exerted over Bangkok and over Thailand as a whole. While we walked down tangled alleyways and passed by dilapidated buildings, Mam told me their stories and opened a door to another world with wealthy clans, fortunes lost in the blink of an eye, and power that can change the course of history, all going way back to Bangkok’s beginnings. We ended the day at a high-rise terrace and watched ships with kitschy light shows cruise up and down the Chao Phraya, while Mam traced the role of this river in the city’s history and then jokingly traced the lines in my palm to read my future. And even though this woman was sitting right in front of me, I couldn’t help thinking that she was a genie who had materialized at the right moment to give me the right advice and show me a side of Bangkok that would have otherwise been inaccessible.
After these two meetings I felt exhilarated and completely forgot about the disappointment of my initial days in Bangkok; on the contrary, I was prepared to move mountains for the next leg of my trip. Another wise woman traveler I later met referred to such events that uplift you during a journey as “the moment when God puts diamonds in your hand.” I can’t think of a better description.
Final day in Bangkok. I have to catch a train to Ayutthaya and, feeling luckier than on the previous days, I wait for a bus that goes straight to the train station. On the bus stop bench, a woman lies resting her head in the lap of her man. Twenty, thirty minutes pass and no sign of the bus. I look around more carefully and realize the couple is not really waiting for a bus. The man is slowly grooming the woman’s hair; she seems quite unsettled, almost on the verge of crying, and the man tenderly repeats his gesture. They just sit like that in silence. I realize I will have to run to the railway station, which I do, for the next thirty minutes or so, barely making it to the train. But it’s alright, the enigmatic scene I witnessed earlier was worthwhile. And I got my slice of Bangkok: conspiring buses and inspiring encounters. Who would want more?