I arrived to Bangkok just after the sun had set on a hot and humid day. The sky was dark and ominous, filled with pitch black clouds and the silence that always precedes a tropical thunderstorm. After having spent nearly a day moving between air-conditioned buildings, buses and airplanes I was hit by the sudden and overwhelming change in climate. While Egypt’s and Morocco’s days are just as hot as here, their air is dry. Thailand’s humidity sets over you like a moist blanket as soon as you step outside, and there is nothing you can do but accept your near-permanent sweaty state. During the taxi ride from the airport to downtown Bangkok I looked out at the somber urban landscape that seemed to emphasize the uniquely sad circumstances surrounding my arrival: the King was dead.
The death of the longest-reigning monarch in the world has shaken Thailand to its very core, and signs of the people’s deep and respectful mourning are everywhere. Huge billboards next to Bangkok’s streets and motorways pay tribute to the King in sober font and color, and the metro’s and many stores’ TV screens display photo slideshows of his life and success. The large majority of people are wearing black and white, and everyone has a commemorative ribbon (even the cars on the local Uber app). And movie theaters show a minute-long royal documentary before every screening during which the audience is expected to stand. As a backpacker however, what was perhaps the most noticeable to me was the complete absence of music in the streets. Not a single hotel, hostel, bar or café playing anything, no live concert performances, no festivals. The usual noisy madness surrounding Khaosan road was replaced by an eerie buzz of people’s much more subdued behavior. Comparing this to my earlier visits to Bangkok, it was a very strange new atmosphere indeed. It almost felt like watching a movie with the sound muted. The usual scenes were still very much present; youthful foreigners eating pad thai and downing buckets of alcohol, locals selling fried scorpion and spider skewers, large balloons of laughing gas being consumed by the more adventurous,… but it all took place in a quite remarkably muffled way.
That being said, my week in Bangkok was still outrageously interesting and crazy. I didn’t visit the usual sights and temples since I had seen those before, instead I explored some different local areas throughout the city, mostly just wandering around, eating street food and talking with the friendly and ever-smiling locals. On a night out with a Swede and a British guy we managed to lose the latter and later were told he woke up the next day 40km outside of Bangkok with no memory of what had happened whatsoever. A French guy was almost seduced by a ladyboy when we attended a hostel-organized cabaret show one evening. I entered a whisky-drinking competition with a bunch of Koreans who were half my size but somehow still managed to drink me under the table. Many more similar stories happened in that first South-East Asian week alone, and the difference with conservative Egypt could not have been greater. The juxtaposition of Cairo as a place of strict social and cultural guidelines with Bangkok as the world capital of hedonistic expression is as profound as it is utterly mind-blowing.
After a long period of research and anticipation I finally bought a compact travel camera (a Sony DSC-HX90V). The photos I had been taking up to this point with my smartphone were not necessarily very bad, but I felt the need for a device with which I had more options while still retaining a small form factor. And Bangkok being a shopping paradise, with 5 of the largest malls in the world in one city, this was the place to be and buy. I’ve now been using it for about a week, trying to learn its features and get the most out its awesome power. I’ll leave it up to others to judge whether this will improve the quality of pictures I take, but in my mind I’m already working for National Geographic.
Getting out of Bangkok wasn’t easy, but I finally managed to get my ass over to Chiang Mai and have been staying here ever since. There’s a reason this city in the Northern hills is so popular with travelers and expats alike. It exudes true serenity and just has a very laid-back vibe about it. It’s one of those places in the world where one can just be. It’s extremely easy to get stuck here, and so a lot of travelers have. Considered one of the most important hubs for digital nomads in the world, Chiang Mai has a sizeable foreign population, with the resulting plethora of food options. And that’s alongside the delicious Thai cuisine, which I can safely say is in my (and probably most people’s) top-3 of world’s best foods. So I’ve basically been being, eating, sleeping, and driving around on my rental scooter visiting temples, lakes and night markets along the way. Buzzing through the hectic traffic is perhaps an initially somewhat frightening experience, but I love the feeling of freedom a motorbike provides. I have every intention of getting my official license when I return home (you don’t need one here, you just need to bribe the police if they were to stop you). But to be honest, if someone can drive in Asia, the rest of the world is a piece of cake in comparison.
I suppose I should mention that this has also been the week a certain disgusting individual managed to bully himself into becoming the most powerful man on earth. Watching the election with the many American backpackers at the hostel was a sad experience, and I am personally just disillusioned with the Western world at this point. At the same time you realize that there is power in unity and that we should never forget a most amazing woman’s advice: “When they go low, we go high”. Now more than ever traveling as a means of not giving in to isolationism and xenophobia, and instead expanding your view on the world seems important.
As for me, I will remain in Chiang Mai for a couple more days, mainly to attend the world-famous Chinese lantern (or Yee Peng) festival taking place mid-November. After that, a two-day slow boat will carry me from the northern town of Chiang Rai over the monumental Mekong River into Laos.
November 13th, 2016